Category Archives: growing

Survivor instinct

I’ve come across some people who have what I call the survivor instinct. People who, when things start looking bad, will throw everyone around them to the wolves to protect themselves.

I’m not saying I could never do that. I’ve never been to the last pitch of desperation and it would be arrogant to predict how I’d behave when I was there. But I’ve certainly seen people respond to a threat with what seems to me a disproportionate selfishness. And I know that, in similar circumstances, I would have had continued to stay open, to value the needs of others as much as my own. I’ve never had to develop this survivor instinct. And I like that about myself, but it’s also a vulnerability.

Of course I have learnt to protect myself from people who are always selfish. But the people I’m vulnerable to are the survivors who seem perfectly compassionate and generous on the outside. For whom it’s only when the chips are down that this harsh streak suddenly takes over. I’ve seen this in two people– my ex, and my singing teacher – both people who seemed extremely compassionate, caring and altruistic, on the surface. (I wonder to what extent this particularly active altruism is in some way a compensation for what lies below.)

By a coincidence I’ve only just recognised, they both showed me this side in the space of a fortnight. Unsurprisingly, it was probably the most painful and difficult fortnight of my life – and even now, a year later, I find myself still learning lessons from dealing with the after-effects.

I’ve never had to defend myself by attacking – so I was completely unprepared when these people I trusted and admired turned on me. I couldn’t understand why they suddenly behaved that way, and took it far too personally. It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that this was part of a defence mechanism, something driven by their feeling of being threatened rather than anything I’d done.

I’m proud that I coped with that without hardening my own heart. I learnt to give myself a less damaging sort of protection – one that recognised just how little the way people relate to me can have to how I have behaved. One founded on knowing myself better. Quietly, but firmly – in a way that doesn’t need to impose that knowledge on others.

And now that I am aware of this survivor pattern, I think I’d find it far easier to recognise when people get into this mode – and protect myself straight away rather than having to come back and patch up the damage caused by taking these harsh words to heart.

From talking to my singing teacher, and from what I know of my ex, it seems to me that some people, during childhood, find themselves under such soul-destroying pressure that they have to protect themselves, at all costs. And once they’ve done this once, it becomes so much easier to do it again, even when the threat isn’t as great. Or maybe once you’ve been so deeply threatened, anything that threatens you even slightly feels just as dangerous as that childhood trauma – so you react the same way, even if the threat isn’t actually that great.

I was lucky. I never needed to defend myself that way. And I hope I never will. But my heart is full of compassion for those who have.


I knew instantly…

I’ve been having a lot of first dates lately, and I’ve been reflecting on something I read a while ago. I can’t remember the source or details, but the idea is that on a first date with someone we pick up on the thing – a character trait, a belief – that is likely to end the relationship.

But in the haze of excitement and hormones we willingly or blindly choose to ignore this. And if people get past the first date, this thing becomes less and less obvious as they fall in love , until it resurfaces and finally becomes too significant to be ignored any longer.

I don’t know how true this is in general, but remembering my first date with my ex I can pick up on two things at least that, with hindsight, could have alerted me to the subsequent problems. He mentioned his firm belief in birth horoscopes as predictors of personality – which I absolutely don’t believe in. And he exhibited a rather hyper-intense manner which he attributed to an “energy healing” he’d just had. At the time these things (particularly the hyperness) did make me wonder if I wanted to go on to a second date with him. But in the end I decided that these weren’t significant enough problems, and that they were outweighed by our quite striking compatibility in other areas.

And yet in the end, if I had to pick out the things that brought our relationship to its messy and painful end, I can see how there were signs of them in that first meeting. The instability. The overly confident belief in things for which he had no evidence. And the disruption to his personality brought about by his work with the energy healer and the organisation she belonged to.

Would it have been better if I had picked up on the warning signs and ended the relationship after the first date?

In the end, I think it was right to go ahead with the relationship. Because in doing so I learnt so much more about myself and where my boundaries lay. I went into that relationship with a lot of unresolved issues about what I believed – with both an attraction to and a repulsion from beliefs in things beyond the natural and evidence-based. And came out with a much clearer idea of what I am willing to accept as evidence, and the dangers of believing things without solid evidence.

It can seems strange that we tend to find relationships that teach us what we need to learn. But I don’t think it’s anything supernatural. Simply that, once we’ve thoroughly absorbed the lesson, we avoid getting into similar situations again. I think the uncertainty I felt about these things was the reason I didn’t see the danger signs. Now that I know more about myself, I think they would stand out as red flags.

I think one of the reasons why I’ve spent so much time single is that I’m quite good at picking up what will not work. And because I’m quite happy single I’d generally rather be in no relationship than in one I suspect won’t work. Perhaps I close things off too quickly, ending things that might work if given a chance. But I think I’d rather have a seemingly endless series of first dates with my eyes open than rush blindly into relationships.

Because once that dazzling cloud of hormones that we call romantic love descends on a relationship, it’s virtually impossible to see the partner with clear eyes. So much as I yearn to ride that rose-spectacled rollercoaster again and allow it to bind me closely to another person, I want to take a really good look at them first. To spot problems before I am blinded to them.

I know in the short term that will bring me lots of frustration. There’s always a sadness in realising that your search for a compatible partner has found another blind alley. But I hope it will, in the long run, save me heartbreak.

If what you’ve found is genuinely a blind alley, keeping trying to walk down it is only going to hurt you. And waste time and energy that could be spent looking for a better path.

(this post was set in motion by a prompt on “Sunday Scribblings” entitled “I knew instantly….”)

Six months’ worth of writing, living and learning

To celebrate six months of blogging (over 200 posts and nearly 100 poems!), I thought I would share thirteen things I have learnt in that time, many of them directly from blogging:


  1. Hearts can heal, and a thoroughly healed heart is stronger than one that has never been broken.

  2. Creativity, particularly new creative projects, is a great way not just to recover from a broken heart, but to grow immeasurably from the experience.

  3. Writing doesn’t have to be a solitary activity – and sharing drafts with an understanding audience is a great way to keep motivated.
  4. Writing things in a public forum, even to a small audience of people whose faces I have never seen, is different from just writing them for yourself – and it can be much more healing.
  5. Sometimes the things I don’t want to say are the ones I most need to say. Sometimes the things I don’t want to say are also what others are most interested in hearing

  6. Free writing practices often produce some of my best writing… and paradoxically often my most structured writing too. And I’m increasingly realising that the ideas and experiences that go into my poems are strong enough to stand as free verse. I enjoy playing with different structures, but I can have more confidence in the interest of my own voice. 

  7. It’s better to say too much than to be too vague to be understood – even if you have to clarify what you meant, or soothe someone’s agitation, you’re communicating. And being so tolerant of other people’s views and beliefs that we don’t express our own is almost always counterproductive – and leads to much less interesting discussions.

  8. It’s far too easy to accept arguments and evidence that supports your conclusion, and not notice the obvious flaws. Reading and participating in the debates in the blogosphere has made me very aware of this, and hopefully made me a more honest debater!

  9. There are some wonderful people out there in the blogosphere…. as well as a lot of people who can’t string a coherent sentence together. Many people out there have had lives incredibly more difficult and complicated than mine has been. I’ve been touched and moved and shocked by some of the things I’ve read. I don’t know whether bloggers are more likely to have trauma in their past, or whether it’s just that in the blogosphere, people tell stories that you would normally hear only from your closest friends. Either way, thank you all for increasing my awareness and understanding of what it is to be human.

  10. Finding my own words to express myself is, right now, more important to me than singing the music and words written by others, however beautiful and powerful.

  11. Always follow your dreams can be a good principle, but it can also be a trap that leaves us struggling and miserable, feeling like failures or forcing ourselves to do things that just aren’t right any more. So it’s important to leave room for both you and your dreams to change and grow.

  12. This last year has been an intense time – difficult in many ways, but I don’t regret a moment of it. I have learnt so much and grown so much, that it’s a hundred times worth all the tears and the pain of heartbreak.

  13. Writing means far less without readers – so thank you all!

Calm amid the storm

It’s become increasingly clear to me that my job, which would have been difficult anyway, has been made much more difficult by the way things were done before I came along. On one level the challenges should feel really stressful – but I am still feeling remarkably calm and cheerful.

Partly it’s because these mistakes are not my fault, and anything that I can do to rectify them is therefore positive. It’s also clear that, though I am relatively inexperienced in this job, my inexperience isn’t really a problem – that my experience in other areas and willingness to ask questions and find things out, is enough for me to do at least as good a job as my predecessor.

But it’s more than that – I seem to have got a lot better at having realistic expectations of myself, and allowing myself space to make mistakes and be uncertain. I’m also noticeably better than in previous stressful situations at self-maintenance and stress-management.

It is so encouraging to notice these changes, and know that I have learnt from previous experience, including – indeed often particularly – from the most difficult and painful experiences.

Few things are more disheartening than feeling that you’ve made the same mistake again, or fallen into an old pattern. Few things are more encouraging than comparing past and present and seeing clearly how far you have come.

Living outside the comfort zone

On my way to a tango class last night, I was thinking about comfort zones and stepping over boundaries. In order to open yourself up to learn new things and have new experiences, you have to step out of the comfort zone and in doing so make yourself vulnerable. It’s often uncomfortable, and often requires bursting through a layer of “I can’t do this/it’s all going to go horribly wrong/wouldn’t it be embarassing if”. But the rewards are great.

And this led me to realise that at the moment I’m outside of almost all my comfort zones simultaneously. Which is perhaps not the ideal way to do it, as it’s draining. Which is part of the reason I’m doing a lot of retreating into the one comfort zone I brought with me – my books, and to some extent my writing. But if I look at my life as a whole, I’m actually spending most of it doing new and challenging things:

Comfort zone – hanging out with friends that you have known for ages.
Outside the comfort zone – being separated from your close friends and forced to go actively looking for new ones.

Comfort zone – doing tasks that are within your control and expertise at work
Outside the comfort zone  – constantly being forced to improvise and make decisions and plans on the basis of insufficient information, as well as dealing with an endlessly challenging interpersonal situation.

Comfort zone – doing what you know you enjoy, in places you’ve been to before.
Outside the comfort zone – going to new places, to learn new things, never being quite sure what to expect or how it will turn out.

Comfort zone – doing things the way you know best.
Outside the comfort zone – always examining what you do, considering how it could be different, challenging your conceptions about who you are and what you can do.

Comfort zone – often don’t use all your energy and resources
Outside the comfort zone – often find you’re drained and weary and in need of down time to recover.

Comfort zone is staying static and cosy.
Outside the comfort zone is being challenged to grow and change.

Though it’s not always comfortable, I feel that being this far outside my comfort zones is actually suiting me rather well. 

Hummingbirds and the nectar of inexhaustible love

One of the most beautiful songs I know is le Colibri by Chausson. I’ve been unable to find a version of the song that I can upload, but here’s a link to someone singing it on youtube:

This is the text…

The green hummingbird, the prince of the high hills,
seeing the dew and the clear sunlight
shining into his nest woven of fine grass,
lifts into the air like a brilliant dart.

Hurriedly he flies to the nearby spring
where the bamboo rustles like the sea
and the red hibiscus with its divine scent
opens its heart to light and moisture

Down to the flower he descends, and hovers
and drinks so much love from the rosy cup
that he dies, not knowing if he could ever exhaust it.

In exactly the same way, my beloved,
on your pure lips my soul wished to die,
drowning in the fragrance of your first kiss.

I was reminded irresistibly of this song by a poem by Paisley on a hummingbird who exhausts himself jealously defending the nectar feeder from other hummingbirds, when actually the supply of nectar isn’t going to run out, and he’s only cheating himself of the pleasure of fully tasting the gift!

Sometimes we don’t believe in our own good luck, in our own worth to be offered the full depth of joy and bliss in the heart of the flower. And so we become jealous, or pretend that we don’t actually want what is offered so freely.

And yet, having been myself in the position of offering a love very close to unconditional, I know how good it feels to have someone to whom we spontaneously wish offer that bounty. A joy that is, in the end, more powerful than the pain of having that gift rejected or abused.

As JM Coetzee puts it in the Age of Iron, “to be full enough to give and to give from one’s fullness: what deeper urge is there?”

Playing small doesn’t serve the world

For me intelligence is one of the most beautiful things there is. To see that spark in someone’s eyes that shows they’re alive to the world, that they are dedicating themselves and whatever capacities they have to living life to the full. The delights of one of those conversations where two minds dance together in a world of ideas – serious or plain silly, it doesn’t matter – what matters is that living intelligence. The essence of humanity.

That light seems to shine brightest in young children, with their endless curiosity. I think it’s sad that, for some people, that light gets turned off as they grow up. They learn to feel stupid, or are told that certain interests are not for them. They are told not to ask certain questions, or give up asking questions because they never get answers.

Some types of elitism do have the effect of stifling that interest. But actually I think anti-elitism has a far more serious effect. In a society where knowledge and learning is valued but kept for the few, it is still there to be aspired to, and the excluded can fight for their just deserts. In a society where knowledge and learning is not valued, people learn to hide their intelligence in order to fit in. (I remember crying my eyes out on receiving the results of a school chemistry test – because I felt that everyone would hate me for getting full marks!). And this limits everyone. It strikes me as very patronising to dumb down for someone because it says implicitly or explicitly that their intelligence is insufficient to go any further.

Yes, some artforms or fields of study do require quite a bit of time and effort before you can really appreciate what is going on. But I do believe that often the difference between people who enjoy “elite” artforms and those who don’t is twofold – a feeling that it’s “not for people like them” and a lack of the experience needed to get into it. That’s not to say that they “ought to” enjoy these things… but I think it’s sad when people are cut off from things that they might enjoy for such limiting reasons.

I would like to live in a society filled with adults with the curious and unselfconscious fascination with the world that children have. A world where intellectual enquiry and pursuit of excellence is valued – not just because of the results, but because of the journey. Where everyone, regardless of their basic intellectual capacity, is inspired to become more, to bring their own special qualities to fruition.

For me this is expressed beautifully in the very famous Nelson Mandela quote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure….

“It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?…

“Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…

“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

This post was inspired by the various posts on En tequila es verdad and Cafe philos about the new Carnival of Elitist Bastards.

I encourage you to follow up the links above – I think Dana’s still looking for more contributions now and in the future. In the meantime I thought this quote from Dana rather neatly explains what the carnival’s about:

“…Elitist Bastards, who have no trouble simultaneously being common as muck and smart as all get-out. We’re not a pretentious elite, but a more populist one. We think intelligence is something to be celebrated, but I doubt any of us think it’s something reserved to a select few, and we certainly don’t think it has to make you a stuffy, proper, boring git. Calling ourselves bastards is a joyful way of announcing we’re out to have fun with our elitist tendencies.”

The beautiful photo was taken by Jose Maria Tan and uploaded to flickr.