Monthly Archives: July 2016

Taking care of yourself is sensible, not selfish.

As kids, it’s drummed into us that being selfish is wrong.

Share your toys. Share your food. Share the airtime in conversations.

Of course this is pretty sensible guidance, because living with others in relative harmony means not keeping it all to yourself. The theory is that if you share with others, then they’ll share with you too.


But not being selfish isn’t the same as believing that it’s somehow wrong to care for yourself, and to look after No 1 at times.

When you travel by air the safety demonstration makes clear that you should put on your own oxygen mask before tending to the needs of others, and this makes great sense.

If you’re going to be of help to the people around you, you need to be strong yourself.

So making sure you’re well-rested, well-fed and well-adjusted isn’t selfish.

It’s just right and proper.

It’s sensible to ask for help with heavy physical loads, and the same is generally true of weighty emotional challenges.

If you needed to move a heavy item of furniture, you probably wouldn’t attempt to do so on your own.

There are some tasks which clearly require more than one pair of hands.


It’s pretty obvious to ask for help when the work is of a physical nature.

Then why doesn’t it seem equally sensible to do so then the heavy lifting is more cerebral?

When you’ve got too much to think about, too much to worry about, it can be tempting to keep it all to yourself.

But that’s not good. In many situations, a problem shared is a problem halved. (Not always of course, but it’s a rule that holds good a great deal of the time.)

Sometimes the simple act of talking through your concerns, worries and anxieties can help you get them into perspective.

Then of course there are other situations in which you really can ask someone else to take the load off your shoulders.

You’re human, not super-human. If you’re carrying a heavy load, there’s nearly always someone who’ll help.

But usually you need to ask. And that’s fine.

Like roadsigns that spring back after a collision, true resilience isn’t really about superhuman strength.

British roads have nearly always featured ‘keep left signs’ which have traditionally consisted of illuminated plastic columns about three feet high and twelve inches wide. They’re generally positioned at wider junctions, especially at points where pedestrians may need to cross the road.

Unfortunately they were vulnerable for two reasons. First, their position on the road meant they had a tendency to get crashed into by careless drivers. In order to avoid more damage than necessary, therefore, these ‘bollards’ were designed to separate easily from their bases, ‘snapping out’ rather than breaking off.

Sadly, while this made sense for safety reasons, it led to the signs’ second vulnerability. They became a tempting target for late-night revellers on their way home, who had a tendency to snap them out of their mounts and re-locate them in such places as somebody’s front garden.


Now I viewed the old signs with a degree of affection, but like all things they’re going the way of the 21st century: yes, we now have bendy ones. They feature a kind of stiff rubber hinge at their foot and are flat rather than square-sectioned, so if a car whacks into them they flip down, then spring back up again.

Their designers have discovered that resilience comes not through rigidity but by building in the ability to flex and self-right.

And maybe what goes for street furniture also applies to emotional strength? When life’s thoughtless drivers try to knock you for six, perhaps it’s more about how you recover rather than how you fail to repel in the first place.

So the next time something untoward happens, you have my permission.

Just think ‘bendy bollards’.

Although all learning is valuable, the most enriching lessons are often those you learn about yourself.

I wonder what you’ll learn today that you didn’t know yesterday?

When you were at school, it was all part of the process that you’d sit through lessons all day, then when the bell rang you’d go home with more in your head than you’d started with.

Much as excellent teachers like to speak of lighting fires rather than filling buckets, I’m sure there’s still a great deal of the latter in today’s classrooms.


I imagine most of us still go to bed with more in our head than was there in the morning, but unfortunately much of this can be stress, noise and aggro – a great name for a firm of lawyers handling environmental distress cases perhaps, but no way in which to retire for a relaxed night’s sleep.

Perhaps there’s a different way to look at this, though? Maybe instead of trying to turn a blind eye to these unwanted thoughts, it can be possible to ask yourself what, if anything, they’ve taught you? Even if this is something so seemingly obvious, for example, as ‘I don’t like it when other people make unreasonable demands of me’.

Then again the day might not have been all bad, providing you with a different sort of learning opportunity – the chance to ask yourself why, perhaps, you felt positively about something good that happened. ‘I like it when I make myself a hot drink and sit calmly in silence for ten minutes.’

There’s nothing wrong with learning for learning’s sake, in fact it can be a pleasure in its own right. But learning about yourself… well, that’s learning for life’s sake isn’t it?

Babies are desperate to see everything around them – noticing your surroundings in great detail can be a great mood lifter.

As I sat sipping a coffee the other morning, a mum and baby were at the next table. Well, mum sat at the table while her little girl (a big assumption, I know, but she was dressed in pink and her mum was calling her Rosie) was strapped into her buggy.

Now Rosie was being as good as gold while her mum enjoyed what I’m sure was a rare and welcome moment of peace. However, uttering only small contented gurgles, Rosie was nevertheless struggling against the buggy’s straps – desperate to see everything around her. It wasn’t enough to observe what was immediately in front of her. She wanted to see it all, including the stuff round the corner, and that’s what small children do.


They have an insatiable desire to look and learn, especially since much of what’s going on around them is taking place (in their world) for the first time ever. It’s how they make sense of the world – or at least try to. (I have to confess that I’m supposedly a grown-up and it still doesn’t make much sense to me.)

The thing is, kids are great at being into everything, especially when they’re small. As we age, it’s common to become more inward-looking – but it makes you wonder if there could just be a link between not noticing the world around you, and suffering from low mood?

Clearly it would be naive to suggest that this is all there is to it, but I’m sure that actively seeking out the new, and going out of your way to examine your world in all its (yes) glory can play their part in giving your mood a helpful lift.

How difficult is this? For Rosie it was clearly no more than child’s play, and if she could do it, I’m sure we can too.

Are you looking after yourself? Your physical health is intimately connected to your emotional wellbeing.

The phrase ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ is sometimes spoken in a belittling sense, as the user sets out to accuse somebody (often a parent) of mollycoddling something or someone (often a child).

When it refers to a little one, it suggests over-protection and the denial of the chance for a child to learn how to stand on his or her own feet.


It’s funny. We take for granted the fact that small children need to be cared for, recognising that this can go too far in a few cases, yet how many of us get anywhere even remotely close to wrapping ourselves in cotton wool?

Be honest, how many of us properly care for our bodies? Too often, perhaps, it can be a matter of ignoring problems in the hope that they’ll go away. Occasionally they do. But not always.

I’m sure men are worse than women when it comes to self-maintenance, but maybe not that much. The thing is, however, mind and body are pretty closely connected (hopefully anyway – the brain-in-a-jar thing only seems to work in old horror movies) and the maintenance of one impacts upon the other. From my own experience, I know my mood often takes a tumble if I’m under the weather physically.

This much seems obvious, so it doesn’t take an enormous leap of logic to accept that being pro-active about your physical health would probably have a positive impact on your emotional wellbeing.

Getting exercise (if you’re able to), eating healthily, making sure you have sufficient sleep: they’re all sensible actions if you wish (and who doesn’t?) to give your mood a boost.

However it also makes sense to follow up on health issues that you might be ignoring. So if there’s something that needs attending to, maybe today’s a good day to address it?

Unless you’re planning to attend a fancy dress party dressed as a snowman, there’s no need to wrap yourself in cotton wool, but neither is it a sensible idea to go to the other extreme. Please take care of yourself.

Who might be there for you in an emergency? Today’s a good day to nurture your relationship with them, just in case.

Businesses know they must maintain the systems and equipment they have in case of emergency. Fire extinguishers should be checked and topped up. Security alarms must be tested on a regular basis. Staff need to participate in fire drills to ensure that everyone knows how to evacuate safely and quickly.

I definitely don’t want to make you feel guilty, but I wonder if there’s perhaps someone in your life that you take a bit for granted? You know, I think we can all do this at times.


Maybe there’s a friend you hope you’d be able to rely on in a crisis? Or a member of your family who you’re certain would be there for you if it all turned to custard?

People like this are important all the time, but specially so if the going gets tough, so I’m certain it makes sense to nurture your relationship with them. It’s not just in case you need help, of course, but that’s certainly a consideration.

What’s more, if you rely on them, they probably depend on you too – so a spot of two-way maintenance never goes amiss.

An email or phone call can be a good start, but there’s no substitute for meeting (and connecting) face to face if you can.

How about it?

Doing someone a good turn may be an old-fashioned idea, but it can really make you feel good.

These days they’re called Cub Scouts, but when I was a kid I belonged to the Wolf Cubs before I graduated to the Boy Scouts. In fact I was a member of both organisations right on the cusp of name changes (“rebranding”, to use today’s vernacular) – just as the ‘Wolf’ and the ‘Boy’ were dropped, in an effort to bring the Scout Association kicking and screaming into the Sixties.

Yes, I really am that old.

I loved being a Cub and I LOVED being a Scout, and just the other day I was thinking about my old Cub promise. It began with ‘I promise to do my best,’ then segued into ‘to do a good turn for somebody every day’, which I still think is an admirable goal.

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The phrase ‘a good turn’ might seem slightly quaint and out-of-date, but the idea of doing someone a favour is something I trust will never go out of fashion. Doing things for others is a sure-fire way to boost your own wellbeing, and of course it also helps to build a better world: a more rewarding place for us both to live in.

As a Cub, I was told to be on the lookout for old ladies who wanted to cross the road (what a funny old world I grew up in) but in case there’s a shortage of shy female octogenarian street-crossers in your neighbourhood, may I suggest that you go a little out of your way to find other people to help during the course of the next 24 hours?

So if the person behind you in the supermarket has just a couple of items, why not let them go ahead of you? If you still have time on your car park ticket as you’re ready to leave, how about handing it on to someone who’s just driven in? Finished your newspaper on the bus or train? Offer it to a neighbour.

The more unexpected your help and the more out-of-the blue it seems, the greater the impact it can have. And the greater the impact, the bigger the kick it will give you.

So seek out those chances to do a good turn today, and – oh yes – do your best, too.

To give your life more meaning, start with the very smallest things, like connecting with others.

A clown without a circus is just a man with an oddly-painted face and over-large shoes.

A priest without a congregation is just someone talking to himself in a big chilly building.

And a doctor without patients is just a woman with a stethoscope and a prescription pad.

One way or another, most people’s lives have purpose when they interact with others. Feeling a sense of purpose can help you see that you’re living a life of meaning. For some, this can be a profoundly life-changing mission, but there’s just as much potential reward to be had from being a parent or through working at a job which gives you a sense of achievement at the end of the day.

This is fine in theory of course, but what happens when your mood has taken a nose-dive? It’s at times like these when, far from feeling you have a sense of purpose, just about everything can seem meaningless.

So how exactly do you tackle this meaning-deficit?


Think, perhaps, of a piggy bank into which you drop just a few small coins now and then. Sooner or later it will be heavy with cash, but it rattles hollowly to begin with. You need to start somewhere, however. Perhaps the same applies when it comes to seeking meaning in life?

When your tank is low, the smallest shared interaction can help. Remarkable as it may seem, and even if you need to force them out, a smile and a hello to a stranger – a shop assistant or receptionist for instance – can be like pennies in the belly of your “meaning” piggy bank. Stroking someone’s dog (best, perhaps, to stick to small ones if you don’t know them) can remind you that your world has more than one species.

When you want to feel part of something bigger, it pays to begin by thinking small.

Why you’re not alone in feeling as you do.

You are one of 7.4 billion, and so am I. We make up a pretty small part of the world’s population of 7,400,000,000. It’s a big number.

The law of averages makes it likely that there will be somebody else out there whose outward appearance is much like yours, to the extent that if you were both lined up in an identity parade, an eye witness could have trouble telling you apart.

Even more likely is that many others share your temperament. They’ll think like you, worry about the same kinds of things you do, and probably have similar hopes and fears.


Just as there are bound to be others like you, so too will there be others like me. But even though this logic is reasonably undeniable, it doesn’t stop us both (I suspect) feeling from time to time that we’re struggling through life in a way that’s shared by no-one else.

When you’re low, how can anyone else feel the same way? How can someone else’s state of mind possibly be like yours?

And of course when you and I think like this, it can feel lonely and a bit hopeless. But this tends to come about when we compare our own inner feelings with the outward appearance of others, and appearances can be deceptive.

If you’re anxious, you may believe those around you aren’t. If you’re unhappy, you may think you’re the only one. I’m sure none of us enjoy that lonely feeling of believing that nobody else is going through what we are, because it can end up making us uncomfortable with who we are.

But right now someone else is feeling just like you do. I’m sure that knowing you’re not alone won’t in itself solve your problems, but perhaps it can help to stop you agonising that they’re unlike those of anyone else. They may well have conquered them, and if they did, so can you.