States of Mind

Playfulness, usefulness and restfulness

“Playfulness, usefulness and restfulness are the only three states of mind I want to inhabit.”

Of all the statements I used to define my authenticity, the above resonated with multiple friends. It is also the one that has been the most helpful to me over the past year. I articulated it for myself circa July (I know this because it felt So Right that I posted it as the caption of a new profile photo on Facebook 😝) and have been roadtesting it since then.

(The Product Manager in me can’t help but see this journey over the past few months as an accidental hypothesis validation process applied to a way of living 🤓)

At one point I even thought about getting tattoos to represent this, with my talented friend Emily whipping up this drawing within minutes of me mentioning the idea - I’d just like to capture it here cos I love the wolf puppies:

(I didn’t get the tattoos … yet.)

And then only a few weeks ago, I had one of those electric conversations with my wonderful friend Maria about all this and how we’d arrived at similar conclusions over this past year:

So I’m compelled to end 2019 with an account of my new approach to my states of mind!

The Good, the Bad and the Numb

In November my Learning Marathon group had one of our regular meetups, this one expertly facilitated by Sharan. The topic was ‘Reframing Your Story’. I was looking forward to this session but as is often the way, the impact this evening had on me was beyond what I expected.

One of the exercises we did was to draw a life chart, indicating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ over whatever period we chose, adding commentary or major events where relevant. Below is what mine looked like.

Notice that big slump in the middle? I called it The Cambridge Pits - my student years where I experienced the worst of my depressive episodes, featuring days of hiding under my duvet reading The Count of Monte Cristo, Al-Ghazali and everything in-between. Also, notice the big uptick towards the present? It’s the place from which I can do this kind of thinking and writing that you’re reading.

The 🙂 and ☹️ emojis on the Y-axis of my life chart are hard to define. All I could be sure of at the time I drew them was that they’re not anything as simple as ‘happy’ and ‘sad’, healthy or unhealthy, wealthy or poor, partnered or single. And the line of the chart smoothes out a lot of up-and-down turbulence that exists if you were to zoom in. But intuitively, I look at it and it seems right: Negative or numb periods dominated my life until recently.

For days afterwards, I kept thinking about how to reverse-engineer this chart, use it not just to look back but also to project forwards and keep my line in the 🙂 territory. It took me surprisingly long to see how the Y-axis corresponded well with my states of mind statement. The 🙂 periods are those in which I felt pre-dominantly one of playful, useful or restful, for example:

  • During high school (the wavy period just above the line c. 2004): I had a good group of friends most of the time, I was a good student, made time to read, go to the cinema, and nerd out with friends.

  • During the start of my career (2012-2014): I worked in a supportive and fun start-up team where I could learn a lot and that would go on to be acquired, I lived in London and enjoyed exploring restaurants and events in the big city and took pleasure in travelling, attending geeky meet-ups and cooking.

And the ☹️ periods are … the opposite?!

  • During my student years: I was constantly and consistently under pressure to perform academically and socially and within the context of an ‘elite’ university and the moments of play or rest I could catch were overridden with guilt and insecurity.

  • During my time working at Google in Zürich: Despite the prestige, the money and the ‘quality of life’, I was anxious in a country that seemed to mostly tolerate foreigners, especially non-white ones. I was bored and missed the dynamism of London, the comedy clubs, the good food. And the disconnectedness and pressure of the Silicon Valley-style work made me feel like I was wasting my time and talents.

When Maria showed me the below version of the Feelings Wheel that she uses, it was immediately obvious what the ☹️ periods were: those dominated by sadness, anger and fear.

In other words, to keep the life chart line in the 🙂 zone, I need to keep my state of mind out the top part of the Feelings Wheels and in the bottom half.

Who Spins the Wheel?

It’s tempting to try to find ways to keep my state of mind in one of the ‘good’ ones all the time. But that requires a level of control on my internal and external world that is impossible. I can’t stop the Feelings Wheel spinning. But I can influence it, nudge it, use it.

I think the worst thing I’ve ever done is try to stop the wheel. When it’s on Anger and I try to grab it and force it to go to Joy. Whereas instead, if I’d just left it alone, it would’ve moved through anger into joy eventually anyway. That’s what a lot of therapy and mindfulness training has been for me. Just let the wheel spin, because it will. Looking at my life chart, the only prediction I can make is that the line will oscillate eventually.

One way I’m choosing to view negative states of mind is that I can harness their energy to propel me into the good ones. Grief, as it’s processed, can become fuel for gratitude, reflection and rest. Anger can help get shit done. Fear can be the key to finding what parts of myself I could make stronger, or turn into a plaything.

There’s a lot more to write on this, but for now, I’ll just finish off with something I wrote as a Facebook post a couple of years ago about how I learned to think about anger:

On Anger

The most helpful thing I've learned about myself this past year is to spot anger and have a model of working with it. Turns out I personally had been avoiding a lot of anger, a valid feeling, by trying my hardest to not let it lead to any violence towards anyone, meaning I would just numb myself by pointing all the anger inwards and building up a lot of shame and belittling myself. This would in time explode in a fit of what turns out to have been self-harm (even if it didn't look or feel like the image we have in society of self-harm).

The model of anger that I now constantly use is to recognise anger as the feeling that occurs when one of my boundaries is crossed by someone or something. This boundary model really works for me. Firstly, it means that I can do the 'mindfulness' thing of just noticing my anger, and trying to figure out what was the boundary - after all, quite often you don't know where a boundary is until it's crossed.

Secondly, it means dealing with anger can become more productive: if I can acknowledge and articulate what my boundary is, then the way to deal with it is to assert it to whoever crossed it. Assertiveness, not aggression or violence.

Thirdly, and this is the hardest part, is figuring out what boundaries I may want to change and realising that doing so is really hard, that the boundaries have formed for a reason at some point in my past and can't be yanked around at will. This means I have compassion for myself when I feel like a boundary is somehow 'wrong' or 'too much'.

If you enjoy reading these ramblings, I’d love for you to sign up to get them in your inbox. As much as I try to write for myself, I know that conversation is what sets my brain alight, so I’d love to hear from you about anything I say that resonates, jars or confuses and you’d like to discuss :)