Category Archives: working


I had it all planned today. I would finally take to work all those little things that help the office day go more smoothly. So into my cycle panier I packed:

  • A mug, green tea, black tea, two herb teas, sugar and a tea strainer
  • A coat (to avoid going to external meetings in my yellow cycle jacket)
  • Moisturiser and lipsalve to combat the dry air of the office
  • A nice scarf and just-about-smart-enough-for-work cardigan
  • A packed lunch
  • My work shoes plus a spare pair just in case I forgot to bring some in one day.

Feeling proudly organised I cycled off to the office in my leggings and scruffy t-shirt. Only when I arrived did I realise I’d forgotten:

  • My mobile phone
  • My purse
  • My diary
  • The clean top I’d been planning to change into after cycling
  • My work trousers

So I ended up meeting all sorts of people for the first time while wearing just a black cardigan over my bra (fortunately it was the wrap around kind and so wasn’t too immodest so long as I kept it tied tightly. And a scarf wrapped around my waist over the leggings – which I hoped would look like a skirt over very thick black tights. I think I just about got away with it!

Luckily, because I had my lunch and lots of tea to drink, I didn’t need money during the day. And luckily nobody called my mobile. Still, my pride in my organisation was rather short-lived!

I’m sure there’s a moral in this somewhere…



I’ve been reading Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness (for some of the key arguments, see this video), and thinking about the idea that our level of satisfaction depends on our expectations. 

Gilbert quotes a startling experiment that shows how important our expectations can be. One group of participants was promised a reward (e.g. £3) for their participation, but then told that there was a mistake and they would receive less (say £2). The second group were promised a lower amount (e.g. £1) and received exactly what they were promised. A rational argument would say that those receiving £2 were still better off and so should be happier than those receiving £1. But in practice the first group were more unhappy than the second – because they didn’t receive what they had expected to receive. One group thought themselves £1 better off than nothing, the others felt they were £1 worse off than £3.

It’s one of those ideas that starts to apply itself to all sorts of areas of my life and thinking.

One of the most difficult aspects of my current work situation is that people feel that they were promised more (by my predecessor) than I am able to give them. So unfortunately what I am able to offer, although generous if considered objectively, is deeply unsatisfying to them because it’s less than they were expecting.

It’s also relevant to relationships. Before my last relationship, I was getting along fairly happily as a single person, having been single for several years. Yes, I wanted a partner, but my life was interesting and fulfilling and overall I was happy. During the relationship I became used to all sorts of things that were better than in my single situation – having my self-image reinforced by compliments and attention, opportunities to discover new things, someone who was always there (by mobile if not in person) when I wanted to talk, and all sorts of other benefits. I didn’t need all those things – I’d got on perfectly happily without them. But their sudden withdrawal was a shock. And while I knew that I could be happy as a single person, it took me some time to get back to that state of mind, because I had expected that the relationship level of comfort would continue. Again, it was harder to cope with the withdrawal of something than it was to cope with its absence.

It also occurs to me that this may be why some religious people view the life of an atheist as necessarily miserable. If you have been promised, and come to believe, that you will meet your loved ones again, it must be difficult and painful to accept the idea that you will not. Whereas if you always felt that death was final, you simply don’t feel the same level of disappointment, because you never expected anything more. Obviously the belief in heaven can help to make the initial grief easier to bear, and will continue to do so so long as you continue believing that. But there’s no real evidence for that belief, so it’s a risky basis for comfort. If that belief ever falters, dealing with the withdrawal would almost certainly be far more painful than it would have been to deal with the initial grief without this apparent consolation.

My experience of having never believed in heaven is therefore vastly different from the experience of someone who has believed in heaven and has ceased to do so. But Gilbert also argues strongly that we also tend to strongly underestimate how well our coping mechanisms help us deal with disappointments like this. Over time, the de-converted seem to get used to the idea that there is no heaven, that they will not see their loved ones again. But a religious person trying to imagine what it would be like not to believe in heaven, is likely to completely overestimate the impact of losing their faith, let alone the experience of a life-long atheist like myself.

Somewhere in the blogosphere I came across someone describing how angry they felt with someone who told a child that there was no Santa Claus, feeling that shattering the child’s illusions was cruel. But I was mystified why they were angry at the person that shattered the illusion – rather than the person who set up the inevitable disappointment by telling that child the original lie that there was a Santa Claus. The experience of living in a world without Santa Claus is completely different depending on whether we were told that a world with Santa Claus was possible.

So what does this mean in practice? It should be reasonably straightforward to avoid making promises that can’t be kept in a work situation, and I’ve definitely had a very clear lesson in why this is so important. It’s harder in relationships – because the nature of a long-term relationship is the hope that it will continue, and the mutual commitment to trying to do so. But still, I think being aware of this will help in future relationships – to know that the horror with which the mind contemplates being single from within a relationship is not a realistic perception of the actual experience of being single. And finally this understanding might come in handy in trying to explain to religious people why the non-religious life is not, in fact, as dark and miserable as they have been told.

The mind does work strangely at times – but it does help to get to know its peculiarities!

Blog life-raft

Sometimes I really feel the strain of being alone in a foreign country, doing a difficult and unpopular job…. Right now it’s making me really tired and demoralised. There comes a time when you’re just too tired to do the things – like going out to tango classes – that cheer you up and bring you into contact with friendly human beings. I’m having one of those evenings now, and it’s not fun. One of the most difficult things is that there are long periods when I’ve done all I can and just need to wait for other people to do the things I’m waiting for – so I’m not only stressed but bored a lot of the time!

I know it won’t last – the weekend is nearly here, we’re making progress on the difficult issues that are wearing me down, so next week should be better, and in 10 days I’m going to be travelling to a neighbouring country – a change of scene and a bit of tourism will do me the world of good, I think!

In the meantime it feels like blogging, and reading other blogs, is the only thing that’s keeping me sane. I’m slightly worried I’m churning out too many posts and overwhelming my poor patient readers, but there’s always the delete button if it gets too much!

It does help hugely to be able to express what I’m going through, and, at the same time feel that I’m doing something productive and creative through writing poetry. And the friendly, supportive comments that people have been leaving are manna for a tired soul.

Tomorrow will be a better day…

Being liked and being respected

I’ve been thinking a lot about respect and liking at the moment (an inevitable consequence of having to say no to what people want on such a regular basis as part of my job!)

Needing to be liked is often given a bad name – and I can see that when taken to extremes it is deeply off-putting. But on another level – perhaps it would be better to say “wanting” to be liked – I think it is a legitimate part of being human. For me one of the interesting aspects of my desire for respect and liking is that it’s reciprocal – it’s not that I want everyone to like and respect me, but I do want the people I like to like me, and the people I respect to respect me. For me, the opposite of insecurity isn’t an insensitive not-giving-a-damn-what-other-people-think, but a confident ability to be open to what other people think. It’s not about rejecting others’ critical opinions automatically, but being able to consider their merits and decide whether their opinions are fair and unfair. Why should it bother me if someone whose judgements are poorly founded makes negative judgements about me?

My break-up with my ex gave me a very dramatic illustration of this principle in action. While we were going out, my trust and respect for him made me very open to his opinions, and very hurt when he said negative things. With hindsight I should have realised more quickly that much of what he was saying was wrong, but because I took him seriously, I took what he said seriously. And I wanted to believe that he was still the person that I had fallen in love with, so I wanted to believe what he said. But – far too slowly – doubts started to creep in.

He criticised me a lot for needing approval – indeed he seemed to view our last conversation as a desperate attempt on my part to get his approval and get him back. But for me it was much more about trying to understand what was really going on, and what had gone wrong. The more I examined what had happened between us, the less I saw anything about what I was, or what I had done, which might have justified his rejection and hurtful comments. I wanted to know why someone I liked and respected didn’t return those feelings. Something had to give.

As it happened, that conversation was a vital part of my recovery, not because he gave his approval, but because his reactions showed me how little he deserved the respect and trust that I had placed in him. It was very clear that the judgements he was making were based on extremely dodgy ground (“energy reading” shaped by fear and projection) and had almost nothing to do with me. Even gentle questioning of his judgments about my behaviour was met with defensiveness and ill-founded accusations.

This was not something I could respect, and certainly someone who was so confused was not someone I could trust. And as my respect for him faded, the pain of being rejected faded too. I still felt – still feel – love and affection for him, because I know the difficult past and present cultish manipulation that made him behave as he did. But without trust and respect, affection and compassion are not sufficient as a basis for a friendship, still less a romantic relationship.

Of course it’s important not to have a “sour grapes” approach, and decide that we don’t respect people purely because they don’t respect us. But at the same time, if someone has negative opinions about us, how seriously we take that surely has to depend on whether those opinions are justified.

It strikes me that, when it comes to others’ opinions, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Suspecting that other people have negative views about me will never be comfortable, and the natural response is to shy away. But I am coming to the conclusion that trying to really understand their opinion of me will be easier to deal with, even if that opinion is negative. Because if I understand why they think the way they do, I can either accept it as real and work on it, or reject it as wrong. I’ve always been open to other people’s thinking, and this has been a source of positive personal growth for me. But I’ve sometimes been too open, and been hurt by unjustified opinions.

Having confidence in myself, and a clear knowledge of who I am, is vital both for daring to enter into that process and surviving it. The sense I have developed, over the last year, that who I am is fundamentally acceptable, including my flaws, is a vital part of that confidence and knowledge.

Because I have learnt to accept who I am, I can be open to experiences and opinions that will show me where the gaps may be.

Because I have a sense of what I am like, I can filter what I hear, and reject opinions that don’t deserve consideration before they can damage me.

I’m getting quite a bit of practice at the moment in dealing with a situation where I have to do things that people don’t like, and accept the likelihood that they won’t like me as a result. And it’s not easy to deal with – I keep feeling that there must be some way to do what has to be done and still be liked. But I am in a difficult situation, and being fundamentally likable and worthy of respect does not mean that everyone will always see that.

I am holding to several different things at this point. Perhaps most importantly this sense of being a fundamentally acceptable and likable person. But also a recognition of my own limitations – that there are some aspects of the situation that no ingenuity or good will can change. A recognition that people’s perception of me will be coloured by many of these things that are beyond my control. And an attempt to be consistent and principled in those aspects that I can control – above all, keeping my word, even if that means being discouraging until I’m sure that encouragement is justified.

It’s not always easy to protect myself from being affected by this difficult situation, and I’m devoting quite a lot of time to internal maintenance and care. But mostly it’s working – and a large part of that my success is being able to build on the lessons I’ve learnt from the break-up. Yet another example of how much stronger I have become as a result of something that seemed so destructive at the time…

Talking about difficult issues

I need to have a difficult conversation with someone at work. I don’t want to have it, but if it were just up to me I would just get on and do it and get it over with. But there are a few things I need to sort out first, and I’m dependent on other people. So it’s dragging on, and I can’t make progress. Every day I go into the office hoping I’ll be able to resolve it, but there’s always something else needs to happen first. So at night I find myself going over the decision, and rehearsing the conversation, in my mind. It’s such a nuisance… I wish I could just get it done and out of the way!

In the meantime I find it’s difficult to  concentrate on other things that need to be done. Particularly things involving the same person. The whole situation is adding unnecessary tension to my working life, which is difficult enough anyway. So I find myself blogging at work (which I normally don’t do at all!) to distract myself from this problem I can’t yet resolve. It does help, particuarly blogging specifically about the problem as I’m doing now…. hopefully having got this off my chest I will be able to start doing something productive again. 

And with a bit of luck I’ll be able to resolve the problem this afternoon. And if not, there’s tango this evening, which is always an excellent distraction from all work-related problems!

When I watch you – terza rima

When I watch you, I see the games you play
I see the hopes you are afraid to dream
The fears that drive you to push and stray

When I watch you, I see your false smiles beam
I see the defensiveness in your eyes
And I also see your frail humanity gleam

When I watch you, my smile implies
That naivety underlies my respect
And yet I am not unaware of your lies

When I watch you, I know what is in prospect
The pain that others’ choices have forced on you
And yet I cannot give you all that you expect

When I watch you, I feel affection and concern, it’s true –
But still I am watchful of the flaws deep in you.


This is inspired by a prompt at readwritepoem – to write a poem based around the line “when I watch you”. For once, this isn’t a poem in any way about my ex!


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.