The Dread of the Tax Return (especially if you’re an HSP)

Cartman doing taxes, photo by Marija Smits

You gotta respect the authoritay.

So… January has come and gone, and with it the deadline for filing personal tax returns. For various reasons, which I won’t go into here, I ended up in a bit of a mad panic filing my return on the day before the 31st January deadline. I hadn’t planned on doing it so late, but that’s the way it turned out. As I felt my chest tightening, frustration gnawing at my throat, I sort of stepped outside my body, looked at myself in an objective way and asked: Why are you so stressed? You’ll have to have a good think about that one day. Write it down. Figure it out. (The two are interchangeable nowadays.) It may help.

            Now that it’s February – ah! beautiful February – I can put down into words my thoughts on the matter. It will: a) be useful for me in the future and b) may be of help to others.

Some observations about the actual process of filing tax returns:

  • HMRC, a governmental authority, is, in many ways, an “authority figure”. Rather like a great big God (complete with flowing white beard) who lives in the sky. Or Big Brother watching you. Or a strict Victorian patriarch who must be obeyed. Or a faceless, voiceless, disembodied entity who hovers above and behind one’s head, just out of sight.
  • There is a deadline for filing returns. A penalty awaits those who fail to file their returns on time.
  • The form is long and involved. Like (to quote Eric Cartman) “hella” long. It is full of financialese, and incomprehensible to most “ordinary” people.
  • Sometimes just getting through “security” (and all the associated texts to mobiles/letters to old addresses/chanting various incantations in just the right order, to have the pleasure of even beginning to file the return) is a challenge/mystery in itself.

Some observations about HSPs:

  • HSPs are (obviously) very sensitive to changes in stress levels. HSPs like things to be calm, quiet and not overwhelming/over arousing (and I’m not using the word ‘arousing’ in a sexual sense here! Just in a general, sensory overload way). Yet even thinking about HMRC waiting for me to file my return brings me out in a cold sweat. I believe that HSPs have a particular sort of fearful respect for authority figures – which, in part, comes from our high level of conscientiousness. Doing the “wrong” thing i.e. not filing the return on time, very much strikes at our moral compass, our integrity, almost like a physical pain, and so the idea of not filing the return, and doing something wrong can bring about panic. Also, HSPs don’t want to displease the authority figure; to anger someone so powerful. We just want everyone to get on, be happy, be calm, because that makes us feel calm.
  • For some, time pressure can help them focus; bring about brilliant work. Not so much for HSPs. And especially not for something like filing our tax returns. We hear the clock tick tocking, every second bringing us closer to the deadline and a potential telling off from the Daddy of All Taxes. Panic sets in. Clear thinking goes out the window.
  • And what do you need most when faced with a series of questions written in financialese – a language us freelance creatives only ever encounter once a year? Yep, that’s right. Clear thinking. (Which has already gone out the window if you’re getting even a smidgeon too close to the deadline for your liking.)
  • And… finally. All this panic (which results in hand wringing, hair pulling, teeth grinding, pleas to the financial gods-that-be etc.) most certainly reinforces the idea in one’s head that one is not a competent, intelligent and rational person who is even capable of filling in a form. Hell, you’re not even sure you’re worthy of appearing before the Grand High Overlord of All Things Tax-related, you’re that much of a lowly maggot. Cue an existential crisis. Or at the very least, crushing despair and a lowering of self-confidence.

 

So, have I got any tips for patching up this egregious mismatch between HSPs and filing tax returns? You betcha!

  1. Get an employer who will give you a PAYE tax code and remove all tax filing responsibilities away from you. Seriously, I often long for an employer-knight in shining armour to take away all my tax troubles – although past experience has told me that being in a bad job is simply bad, bad, bad. THE BOSS may well very quickly dump his/her shining armour to become the new dreaded overload. Sadly, good bosses are few and far between.

 

  1. If no. 1 isn’t an attractive-looking option, or not at option at all for whatever reason, do consider employing someone to take away the stress of the tax return. Even the spectacularly useless Bernard from Black Books wisely took on someone to deal with his taxes. Brilliant comedy ensued. If this option is too costly either find a patient and financially-minded friend who is willing to help you out (either for free or in exchange for some of your brilliant art) or…

  1. Put on your I-can-do-this superhero cloak and prepare for battle! Ideally, you’ll be needing to enter into battle 3-6 months before the deadline to make it as stress-free as possible. Remember, you can actually save your return as you go (it does work, I’ve checked) and do it in stages.

 

  1. Take screenshots of every single page of the tax return as you go (with your answers within). As these will be timed and dated you will end up with a series of screenshots that take you from beginning to end. (I’ve found that the PDF/HTML completed return that HMRC provides you with at the end is baffling/gobbledygook, so screenshots page by page are better.) Then file them away safely. This will hopefully be incredibly useful for next year when you find yourself stumped by any particular question (that’s as long as year on year your tax return remains pretty consistent).

 

  1. Stock up on chocolate/tea or whatever takes your fancy while you do the task. Keep giving yourself treats and it may just trick your mind into thinking that you’re doing something pleasant.

 

  1. Keep reminding yourself that despite any tax return problems you encounter, you are in fact a worthwhile, confident, intelligent and (mostly) rational being, and that YOU HAVE GOT THIS. And if all else fails? Overcome your fear and unwarranted reasoning that you don’t want to waste anyone at HMRC’s time with silly questions and give them a call. Often, a very nice person will help guide you through the form. And if you get stuck in a phone cue, a jangly tune rattling in your ear, grab a pencil or pen, start doodling or start writing a poem or short story. Or sing along. Or rant. Or practice your deep breathing. Who knows, you may end up so blissed out you may start levitating.*

 

To recap. You are brilliant. And intelligent. And worthy enough for the financial gods-that-be. And… YOU HAVE GOT THIS.

 

*Not guaranteed.

 

 

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Reflections on a Decade of Mothering

As we near the end of the year I can’t help but look back. 2017 was a big ‘mothering year’ for me as my firstborn, my daughter, turned 10. A big milestone – for her, for me. It’s taken me a while to process this! So I wanted to share my reflections, but to sort them into two sections – a serious part, and a less serious part. Feel free to read one or the other, or both. 🙂

The new bike, photo by Marija Smits

The new bike, photo by Marija Smits

 

Reflections Part 1 (The Serious Part)

 

1. Strength

When my daughter (who is a highly sensitive person [HSP] like me) is worried about something – some upcoming event, some friendship issue – I always tell her that she is strong; that she can get through it and cope. She always disagrees, saying something like, ‘But I don’t feel strong!’

I do find it difficult to articulate how we all have this inner strength (especially when externally we don’t seem “strong” – physically, or even socially) but I show her the evidence – reminding her of times in the past when she got through difficult or stressful events. That seems to help (a bit). But this reflecting on her past also reminds me that my decade of mothering has helped me to tap into my inner strength. As a quiet, highly sensitive person, I often feel weak and wobbly – not strong at all – and then I remind myself: hey, you gave birth! That wasn’t “nothing”. And don’t forget the fights you fought on behalf of your baby girl and yourself: to continue to breastfeed when nearly everyone thought you were “cuckoo”: to continue to co-sleep and keep close to your girl for years and years… And the “fights” continue although, of course, they are different, centering mainly on school/academic issues, friendship and social issues. I don’t welcome the fights, but at least I can tell myself this: you are strong. You can handle this.

 

2. Empathy

When times have been acutely tough I’ve had to remind myself: hey, you’re the grown-up here. Deep breaths, tapping into the inner strength that I mentioned earlier, and digging deep for the empathy that’s always there but may have vanished temporarily for any number of reasons – sleep deprivation, hunger, lack of time to oneself – have absolutely turned a high-stress situation around. Humour, too, can be an amazing way to alleviate (or at least pause) a fraught situation. And this ‘honing’ of empathy has benefitted me in all areas of my life.

 

3. Compassionate Communication

For me, one of the biggest benefits of becoming a mother has been the discovery of my tribe (a group of like-minded mothers). I found my tribe when I went to La Leche League GB breastfeeding support meetings. And then I went on to become a voluntary breastfeeding counsellor. Part of the training to become a counsellor involved me learning about compassionate communication. Oh my goodness! Learning about this stuff was absolutely eye-opening; it really has made me aware of all the barriers to clear communication, and how to shift those barriers, and to also find the middle ground between passive and aggressive ways of communicating (it’s called asserting). For an HSP who finds it difficult to speak up and out it really has been a godsend. Check out my thoughts in the ‘life-changing books’ section of the blog if you want to know more.

 

4. Trusting your Instinct/Learning to Let Go

Gosh, this one’s tough! Again, part of maturity, to becoming a ‘whole’ individual – a true wild woman – is knowing when to let go. Accepting that your children have to grow, step away from you, fight their own fights, and make their own way in life is tough. This can feel absolutely heartbreaking, but it’s also necessary. The key is to listen to one’s own inner voice – a mother’s instincts have been well honed over time (we’re talking millennia here) – so we instinctively know when our child is, or isn’t, ready for taking on a new challenge. The trick is to listen to that voice and to be true to it (which can be especially hard when lots of other people have loud opinions that contradict yours).

 

My girl and me, photo courtesy T. Bellamy

Toddling days, photo courtesy T. Bellamy

 

5. Acceptance

Some parents have very specific ideas of who their children should be. They may have laid out whole career/life paths for them. It’s understandable to make plans and have dreams like these, but the reality of who our children really are often ‘upset’ these plans. That’s when a flexibility of outlook, open-mindedness, and non-judgement all come into their own. Our child may not be the genius academic/Olympic medal-winning gymnast/maths wizz that we wanted/expected them to be. What then? Accepting our children for who they are, just as they are, and supporting them in their own life choices is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

 

6. Self-care

In the early years children’s needs – to be fed, to be held, to be close – are frequent and intense. This is natural. But meeting those needs (particularly without support from extended family/friends) can be tough, just because of the intensity and frequency of the needs. Asking for help can be difficult but often essential. When I was in the thick of cluster feeding, frequent night waking and round-the-clock nappy changing it felt as though this stage in my life would never pass. But of course it does. I now focus far more on meeting my needs. Like my need for exercise, eating healthy food, time for creativity, time with my husband. I remind myself that all these things are about investing in my children too. I want to stay as healthy (in mind and body) for as long as possible so that I can enjoy watching my children grow into adults; and maybe go on to have children of their own.

 

7. Boundaries

Another tough one; particularly as it’s something that I find hard in my day-to-day life too. Boundaries are about setting sensible limits for the kids (for instance, on things like screen time, eating junk food/sweets) as well as the precious ring-fencing of family time, sleep time etc. but of course this principle extends to other things – like when friends/family/colleagues impose themselves upon you and try to move past the boundaries you’ve made that keep you comfortable, safe, happy. That’s when saying things like, ‘no’, ‘enough’ or asserting in a diplomatic way (things that doesn’t always come easily to me) is ever so valuable. This takes practice, but it can be done, and will make your life better because YOU are the one in control. Sometimes saying ‘no’ to a social event/volunteering gig/work thing (so that you, the parent, have some precious time to yourself), or saying ‘no’ to your child when they whine for sweets is actually the most loving thing that you can do for yourself or your child. But it’s tough to do. And you’ll often have to deal with the immediate (and possibly) spiky consequences, but in the long term it will pay off.

 

8. Love

There’s nothing quite like going through the intensity of parenting to make you look at your partner with fresh eyes. To see their strength, their empathy, their fierce love is really quite something. I will always be grateful for having my husband alongside me in those intense years of parenting our babies. And I am glad to continue to have him alongside me as we venture into the future, the challenges of parenting not as intense perhaps, but still just as challenging, because of their complexity. Plus, I just happen to really really love him.

 

Walnut hearts, photo by Marija Smits

 

Reflections Part 2 (The Less Serious Part)

 

1. Baby Wipes

If I hadn’t become a mother I may never have discovered baby wipes. Seriously, they are amazing. Everything can be cleaned with baby wipes – dirty bottoms, dirty faces, the oven, the floor, kitchen surfaces, car upholstery, even the cat! Everything. Genius. (Oh, and for very tough-to-remove carpet stains I can recommend Mr Muscle oven cleaner.)

 

2. Playground Frolics

Children give you a good reason to have a sneaky go on the swings, or roundabout, or see-saw, or whatever. (You know, so that you can check that the equipment’s safe and fun.) Just don’t get too carried away. A toddler crying because mummy won’t share is not cool.

 

3. The Perfect Excuse to…

not go shopping, or out, ever again. (Introverted HSPs who could happily stay at home 24/7 will understand what I’m talking about.) Also, the perfect excuse for being late. Like every single time.

 

4. Computer Games

I often justify playing Minecraft by myself because my son asked me to ‘do a little something’ in our world. So what if the ‘little something’ turns into a whole afternoon mining (or killing zombies)? God dammit, sometimes you’ve just gotta do what you gotta do to help your kids out.

 

5. Getting into Art/Building Humility

Okay, this one’s a tiny bit more serious, but there’s really nothing like doodling alongside your kids, having fun with colouring pencils/felt tip pens/paint and allowing yourself the opportunity to create crap (or otherwise) pictures. Who knows, you may grow a whole new career out of it, just like my talented friend Doodlemum did – or, like me, you could just be very pleased to have created something you wouldn’t ever have dreamed of creating a decade ago.

And as an aside, it was just the other day I realized that whenever I draw an idealized version of myself (see below) what I’m actually doing is drawing a picture of my daughter in the future. Seeing myself more as the background, as opposed to the foreground, is a humbling (and useful) experience.

 

At the swimming pool, by Marija Smits

At the swimming pool, by Marija Smits

 

A realization, by Marija Smits

A realization, by Marija Smits

 

6. Cake

The past decade has seen me ingest a huge amount of cake. You see, there’s always so much of it about (at toddler groups, mums’ meet-ups and breastfeeding support groups, as well as school which regularly holds fundraising events where baking and cake stalls are a feature). But I’ve done my duty manfully (or, rather, womanfully…?) and eaten ALL THE CAKE in aid of many a good cause.

 

7. Time Pressure

Seriously, there’s nothing like becoming a parent for having the realization that time is precious. Before I became a mum I had oodles of time – huge bin-bag sized heaps of time (which I filled appropriately i.e. with junk). Pre-motherhood I used to talk about how busy I was to write because I had work and house stuff to do, oh, and watching telly and socializing and faffing about. Then I became a mother and realized that, actually, this is what ‘no time’ looks like. Round the clock care for a tiny human being hugely contracted my available time to create. But… what’s amazing about motherhood is the sheer ingenuity of mothers who magic time out of the day to create. It might just be a scrawled five lines of poetry while your toddler happily plays with blocks (though realistically we all know they’re more likely to be pulling off books from bookshelves/busy flushing your phone down the loo/ingesting cat food or Geomag balls etc. etc.) but that poetry making is precious. And worthwhile. If you keep at it, you’ll soon build a collection. And even watching CBeebies can help to motivate you to become a poet/poetess. If Abney from Abney and Teal can do it, so can you.

p.s. I am not endorsing letting your toddler ingest cat food or Geomag balls. Both have scant nutritional value, and as someone who’s spent a worried 18 hours from the said ingestion of a Geomag ball to its evacuation (and subsequent rifling around in poo to recapture the damn thing) it’s really not worth it. But judging by this thread on Mumsnet I am not the only mum who has had this experience!

 

8. Christmas

Ah, this one’s bittersweet. For me, Christmas was never quite the same since my dad passed away (I was fifteen when he died). But now Christmas is something I look forward to again. It’s just so wonderful to see the grins on the faces of both kids as they wake up on Christmas Day, sleepily muttering, ‘It’s Christmas!’ And luckily, Father Christmas happens to be rather good at packing my stocking with lovely goodies too.

***

And lastly…

…a THANK YOU to all the kind readers of my blog who continue to pop along, read, share and comment on my eclectic posts. Wishing you all a very Starry-You Happy Christmas and all the best for 2018!

 

Starry-You by Marija Smits

Starry-You, by Marija Smits

The Appeal of Halloween to an HSP Who Doesn’t Like Horror

I’ve never liked horror – films or books – and the few famous films in that genre that I did watch when I was in my teens/early twenties (Silence of the Lambs, Seven) pretty much freaked me out so much that I quickly realized that although a lover of fantasy and science fiction, horror was never going to be my thing. Two decades later I haven’t changed my mind on that. Which is why I think my husband gets confused by my love of Halloween. So recently, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about Halloween that I enjoy so much. This is what I came up with:

1) Halloween means different things to different people. Obvious, I know, but as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) I am really not into Halloween as ‘night of horror’ (or the accompanying gruesome, horror film-derived masks/costumes, or horror film watching). But, linked as it is to Samhain, what fascinates me about Halloween is that it is considered to be:

“…a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld thinned. This meant the Aos Sí (pronounced /iːˈʃiː/ ees-SHEE), the ‘spirits’ or ‘fairies’, could more easily come into our world and were particularly active.” From Wikipedia.

As a lover of all things fae, uncanny, otherworldly, (and the pleasantly spooky, but not horrifying, spine-tingling that otherworldliness affords) this is pretty much my thing.

 

Spirit of the Night, by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Spirit of the Night, by John Atkinson Grimshaw

 

2) Dressing up! As an HSP I hate getting out of my comfy tracky bottoms and into something… less comfortable. But as a lover of art and all things beautiful I relish the idea of ‘me as art’ i.e. transforming myself into something otherworldly. My kids enjoy this bit too.

3) Pumpkin carving. Another chance to get creative, but with fruit! (And to also light lots of cheery candles.)

 

Pumpkin eating pumpkin, photo by Marija Smits

Pumpkin eating pumpkin, photo by Marija Smits

 

4) Halloween baking. Over the years I’ve made my fair share of pumpkin soups, stews and pasta dishes (not to mention the sweet treats). Again, my creative side likes the opportunity to cook something I normally wouldn’t cook.

5) The chance to chat to neighbours. Okay, as a prefer-to-stick-to-the-comfort-of-my-own-home HSP I’d rather stay in my house than take my kids trick-or-treating, but going trick-or-treating does push me out of my comfort zone to actually talk to people. It helps me to put a ‘face to a house’ (if you see what I mean) and to remember that the majority of people are actually pretty kind and go out of their way to make little kids feel like the stars of the (Halloween) show. One lady always gives us apples as well as sweets, and I’m pleased to say that my kids seem to value her jewel-red apples as much as the sweets!

6) Recently, I’ve enjoyed finding out more about the Day of the Dead (my daughter’s been particularly fascinated by this) and making links between all the global Halloween/All Souls Day festivals as well as Skeleton Woman/Lady Death, from Women Who Run With The Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (Skeleton Woman being another facet of the Wild Woman). It’s important to acknowledge the ‘life, death, life’ aspect of our lives, and nature, and Halloween is one of the few festivals to do that.

7) A chance to play party games (such as apple bobbing) or to put on magic shows, shadow puppet shows… anything not too scary suits me just fine!

8) It reminds me of my childhood… and dressing up and going out trick-or-treating with my big sister and her friends. I felt ‘very big and grown up’ to able to do this, and I remember it as being fun (it helped too that my parents treated the whole thing as one big child-friendly party). I think I was nearly always a black cat (it was an easy costume to put together), which suited me fine, because cats are great.

 

Our new cat, Mitsie, photo by Marija Smits

 

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On Feeling Invisible

Today, I am having a low day, a sad day. Today is a day to remind myself that there is a rhythm to life, a rhythm to creativity. It is a day for me to be mindful of the fact that energy ebbs and flows. Today is simply a low day. It will pass; these days always pass, but I wanted to document this so that when this happens again I will be comforted by this reminder. Also, if anyone else ever feels like this, I want to say this: I hear you.

Invisible Woman, by Marija Smits

Invisible Woman, by Marija Smits

Today is a day when I’ve felt as though I’m invisible. A few tiny tiny things (in the grand scheme of things) have occurred to make me feel like the character Amos Hart from the movie ‘Chicago’ who memorably sang the heart-achingly sad ‘Mr Cellophane’. A friend I was conversing with this morning wandered off mid-conversation to chat with another group of people. My inbox is continuing to remain desolately free of meaningful emails, although I’ve sent off many emails in the past fortnight (both professional and personal). Friend requests via Facebook of people I admire and would like to get to know better (though not in a creepy way, of course!) are just not happening. A Twitter conversation I started the other day trailed off into nothingness… My blog stats tell me that no one (well, okay, few people) are reading my blog. I am also failing to “see” my own work. It’s all rubbish, it’s all a waste of time. And most mothers can probably relate to this: all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, admin work, shopping, present-buying, birthday party-organizing, caring and loving that goes on unseen and unacknowledged by society (and sometimes friends and family too). Only a (work) rejection (for some funding) today made me feel something: Ouch!

I have to remind myself that other people have lots going on in their lives; to be patient, open-hearted. I have to remind myself that I am also guilty of forgetting to reply to friends’ emails (or social media exchanges) and that there’s no malice in my oversight – just an overstuffed schedule and a holey memory (and possibly also embarrassment when I realize how much time has passed since they first contacted me!). In short, we are all human. Forgive me. Forgive them.

The trouble with feeling invisible – for an HSP at least – is that a commonly offered solution is to: Speak out! Make yourself heard! All very well if you’re an extrovert and/or have enough energy to assert. But when I feel low this feeling invisible thing is self-reinforcing. I am invisible, ergo, I must hide away. Sometimes, hiding away (maybe with a large tub of ice-cream to watch a movie, or to play Minecraft, or whatever – at least the villagers interact with me!) is just the right thing to do. But there’s not always a chance to do this, and of course work, and household chores etc. etc. are an impediment to hiding away. And sometimes, hiding away can seem a bit scary, because there’s always the worry, Will I ever come out of this?

The answer is always, always this: YES. You will come out of this. There is a rhythm to life, a rhythm to creativity. Have trust in the rhythm of your body, the rhythm of the feminine wild. Do what you have to do in the “low” – hunker down, cry, make yourself heard – and then, when you are ready, come out once more to shine.

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All the Fun of the Fair – or Maybe Not?

A fortnight ago the funfair came to our small town and set up shop. This happens every year at the beginning of July and on the Saturday of the travelling fair’s four-day-long stay the village runs a show alongside the funfair. This means that the recreational field is full of stalls, there’s an area for music and dance performances, a dog show and tug-of-war; ice cream vans and tombolas. In addition, there is the local horticultural, arts and crafts show for townsfolk to get involved in.

I like to take part in the show (particularly the art categories) – although I do tend to forget about it until the very last minute – and as they have crafting & baking categories for children to enter it’s become a bit of a thing for us. Although every year I reiterate to my two kids – it’s about the taking part, not the winning!

As they’ve got older they’ve become more interested in the show, but still, the big highlight for them is the funfair. This year we had fine weather and came away from the arts and craft show with a few prizes. So we headed to the funfair with smiling faces… First stop was the candy floss seller.

 

Candy floss, by Marija Smits

Candy floss, by Marija Smits

 

However, I do have mixed feelings about funfairs. As an HSP (highly-sensitive person) the sheer number of people, the noise (sometimes screams) of the crowd, the pop songs blaring out of the speakers, the smell of the diesel-fuelled generators mixing with the smell of frying onions and burgers, hits me with a good old sensory wallop. I worry about the kids getting lost; I worry about where they’ve put their shoes when they go on a bouncy castle or ride that requires them to go barefoot; I worry about how much money I’m spending; how I’m going to carry all the stuff I’ve brought along with me and not lose any valuables in the process; I get hot and sweaty, and worry about the safety of the people on the fast, whizzy rides (look at all those mechanical parts… so much could go wrong!) and, in general, my patience runs out pretty quickly. I long to get home, to the quiet and cool of our comfy and non-sensory-overloading nest.

 

Kids water walking, photo by Marija Smits

Kids water walking, photo by Marija Smits

 

And yet… there is something rather wonderful about the funfair. I can see why travelling fairs have ended up in speculative books and TV shows (Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, along with Heroes, immediately spring to mind) because there is something thrillingly different, mysterious even, about the funfair and the lives of the people who run them. It also makes me think of my own childhood, and in particular my early teens, when the funfair coming to town was a much-anticipated event. Oh for the gut-churning thrill of the waltzer; the super-greasy fast food; the whiplash of the bumper cars; the chance of encountering boys from the local boys’ school…

Perhaps age, then, is the main factor in my no longer being able to fully enjoy funfairs; maybe they mainly appeal to teenagers who yearn for the promise of excitement. To a limerent girl-turning-woman, the funfair was a glimpse into the future – of night-life, of thrills, of the other sex. And given the number of groups of teenagers descending on the funfair I can’t see its appeal vanishing any time soon. I can envision my own children, when older, congregating at the funfair with their friends. No doubt I’ll worry about their safety, and exactly what they’re getting up to (!), but like most parental milestones, it’ll be something I’ll have to experience and learn to navigate, if not, exactly, embrace.

 

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Seeing Myself in My Parents; Seeing My Parents in Myself

Sometime last year I took my daughter to a friend’s birthday party. As I stood in the café area of our local swimming pool, chatting to one of the birthday girl’s grandparents, hands deep in the pockets of my bulky khaki-coloured parka, I suddenly had a moment of what can only be best described as déjà vu. Only it wasn’t that I’d experienced this moment before (because yes, I know, déjà vu is nothing uncanny, it’s just a memory short) it was that for a moment I was my dad and my dad was me. A memory of my dad had suddenly inhabited me. He was waiting for me in an equally unremarkable setting, hands deep in his pockets, rocking back and forth from the balls of his feet to his heels, effortlessly exchanging pleasantries with someone he’d only just met. I saw myself in him. And him in me.

And just the other day, driving my son to gymnastics, I saw him in the way I had splayed my fingers across the steering wheel. Another habit of my dad’s. My father also had a deep respect for science but, also, he loved an uncanny mystery. Erich von Däniken’s books fascinated him. One of the last ever conversations I had with him before he died was about the film Inner Space. He had picked me up from a friend’s house where I’d just seen it, and as we drove home we enthusiastically discussed the concept of miniaturization, whether it would ever be possible, and what its consequences would be for humans and whether or not it could play a role in medicine. (Something I explored in one of my short stories, which, one day, will hopefully be ‘out there’.)

I cherish these findings. Although of course they make me remember how much I miss him.

Because my dad died when I was pretty young (15) I never really went through the ‘I’m so embarrassed by my dad’ stage. However, I’m not sure whether or not I would have ever gone through this stage with him anyway. I’m pretty sure he was an HSP – though a ‘gregarious’ one, because he was adept at socializing – and so in public places he would keep a low profile. (Though this could’ve also been something to do with being an immigrant.) Anyway, he didn’t embarrass me. My mum, on the other hand, specialized in embarrassing me. (Although, interestingly, she is an immigrant too, and sensitive at heart. But she’s an off-the-scale extrovert. I guess that trumps all!)

For a start, she had a stint as a nude model. At a well-known private boys’ school. Then there was the Russian accent, flamboyant clothes, and a tendency to make everyone in a public place know that she was there. As an HSC (highly-sensitive child) tending towards introvertism this attention-grabbing (to my mind) behaviour made me cringe. All I wanted was to be ‘normal’ like the other kids. My mum was badly letting the side down.

 

An Important Lesson

However, from the one phrase that my dad said semi-regularly (the one thing that I didn’t like to hear him say, because of course, it meant I had a chore to do!): “Teika, sometimes in life, there are things that you don’t want to do. But you’ve still got to do them.” I must’ve subconsciously taken the following:

  1. Some things are out of our control. (Like having an embarrassing mum.)
  2. You have to find a way to get through them. (You keep your head down and promise yourself you’ll never embarrass your own kids in the future.)

Nowadays, I relish repeating his words to my kids. They groan and roll their eyes, but actually, it’s a wonderful thing to discuss, as it give us an opportunity to consider things like fairness, doing and sharing chores, and the importance of finishing tasks. It also leads on to bigger issues – must we like our work? If we don’t, do we stick with it, or not? – and other such things.

Now that I’m a lot older and understand more about my father’s background, and his home country, Latvia, which was besieged by both the Russians and the Germans in WWII, I can read far more into those words. In a wartorn homeland there will be difficult choices to make. Difficult things to do. I thank God that so far I haven’t had to make those kinds of difficult choices.

So when it comes to my childhood “suffering” as ‘being a bit embarrassed by my mum’ I see how trivial my apparent tribulations were. Still, as a child, fitting in seems to be so crucial, doesn’t it? We want our ‘tribe’ – our peers – to accept us, don’t we?

So I hope I’m getting the balance right for my kids. As an HSP my default is to keep my head down and keep quiet, not draw attention to myself. Yet there is a time and place to make a noise, kick up a fuss. My dad once spoke to me about making a fuss, going to the papers etc. if my school wouldn’t allow me to change one of my GCSEs (from Design to French) halfway through the first year of our GCSEs. The Head said it couldn’t be done; I’d be too far behind, I’d fail. When I asked him what he’d tell the school if they said ‘no’ he said that he’d threaten to chain himself to the radiators, and call in journalists. The headline would be ‘SCHOOL STOPS PUPIL FROM LEARNING!’. (We had it all figured out.) Thankfully, it never came to that. His diplomancy and quiet insistence won out. But still, his patient determination – being the discomforting stone in the Headteacher’s shoe – impressed on me. In many ways I’ve inherited this ‘rebellious’ streak, and my own ‘quiet’ acts of assertion on behalf of myself and my children when faced with ignorance, prejudice or baroque attitudes to education (or breastfeeding or whatever) have been bolstered by my memory of his fights on my behalf.

Oh, and by the way I got an A in GCSE French. (Take that, school!)

 

My Lovely Mum

I realize that this post has focussed more on my father than my mother (it can be easy to take a living loved one for granted, can’t it? I apologise Mum!) so I will remedy that now.

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

After all the “years of embarrassment” of having an extrovert mother, when I was sure that our differences were so great we couldn’t possibly be related (!) I grew up. Mellowed. Heck, today is my 41st birthday. I can finally see our similarities. Both of us find inaction abhorrent. She seems to either be cooking or washing up continuously. Or cleaning our greenhouse (only to have the kids mess it up within a few minutes…). I can’t not tidy or pick up after the kids; I can’t not be writing or planning something creative in my head. We’re both musical and emotional, cry in church or at films or at the theatre. Or well… virtually anything that even somewhat pulls at our heartstrings. We’re both pretty optimistic, and she is big-hearted and generous. We’ve both got green fingers, laugh too loud and too long at silly jokes, and as I age I have to admit that physically, I’m pretty much just a slightly younger version of her (though definitely far less attractive, as she is a genuinely beautiful woman, a bit like a Russian Marilyn Monroe). She also likes to tell me that people still knock 20 years off her age most days. I agree that she doesn’t look her age (she’ll be 71 soon) so I smile when she tells me. (Although sometimes the old teenager-me kicks in and I roll my eyes!)

Now that I’m older I sometimes look back at my much younger self and feel bad about all the times I wished away my “ugly” dumpy body or stupid name or strange foreign parents. Sitting here, in my home, surrounded by much much love, I feel incredibly blessed to have had two wonderful parents who gave me so much in the way of gifts. Most days I don’t feel as though I can live up to all that potential; I’ve certainly failed when it comes to that ‘list of things I plan to do’ which I made as a teenager. But sometimes, when I catch myself just going about my everyday life: working, writing, cooking, gardening, hugging my children, husband and loved ones (as well as our new cat) I think that actually, I’m doing okay.

 

I'm never going to behave like that cartoon, by Marija Smits

Cartoon by Marija Smits. The wonky fringe in the top picture is not a mistake.

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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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