The weight of sorrow

You know when you’re at the deli and the deli assistant weighs the plastic container and then deducts it from the weight of the olives?

Life is a bit like that.

We see and quantify the substance of a person as we find them today, but what of the weight of past sorrows?

Sadness stacks up over a lifetime. Death, sickness, divorce, redundancy, lost loves and lost friends.

What does that weigh? And can that burden be reduced or removed?

The answer lies in strengthening ourselves, rather than the futile pursuit of trying to escape sorrow. We can’t change or avoid the sorrows we’ve been given but we can learn to bear the load and build muscle.

Unobserved, some sorrows might fall away, or dry out and turn to dust. Some might lose their meaning, like beloved childhood toys or out of circulation coins.

By focusing on what makes us strong, we might miss the moment that our sorrows slide into the ocean to feed the waiting birds.

And then those birds take flight and the weight is gone; transformed.

Understanding family culture

Families have incredibly complex micro-cultures.

You can take two middle class Aussie families and, on the surface, they appear similar. They live in brick and tile houses, they spend Christmas together, they go on holidays to Thailand, or Fiji, or New Zealand.

But the minute you start to investigate, gaping differences appear.

It’s not just around which football team you support or whether you’re religious. After all, football is religion in some homes. It’s things like who you invite to dinner and how you invite them; what you eat and how you eat it. Do you share dishes when you order Thai or Indian or do you get your own? Is it OK to get drunk or is it frowned upon? Is there a culture of gluten-free or white bread?

Australia’s immigrant culture means that many families are influenced by the home nation of their parents and grandparents. My Mum was born in Switzerland and embodies Swiss-German values when it comes to her commitment to perfection, cleanliness and organisation. My grandfather was Polish and, like so many Polish people, drank immoderate amounts of vodka on a daily basis. My Aussie grandmother, on the other hand, might have a shandy once a year.

Marriage is an ongoing exercise in trying to understand someone else’s family; a process that becomes even more complicated when you take blended and broken families like mine. My Mum and Dad live in totally different ways. My stepmum and stepdad bring their own cultures to the mix.

When you start work at new company, you get an employee manual that explains everything, right down to the appropriate pants-length on Casual Friday.

Wouldn’t it be great if families came with a guide? Imagine the angst you would avoid; the fights and faux pas.

Needless suffering

We all do it.

We all have one drink too many, or eat that thing we know makes us sick.

We put up with the back pain because we’re too broke or busy too go to the chiropractor.

We put off holidays because work – or our boss – is just too crazy right now.

We seethe and stew and think negative thoughts because we’re too chicken to talk about it with the person or people in question.

But why? Surely it’s quicker in the long run to address the problem? To seek help and find a solution.

Make a list of all your pain – all the things that aren’t right in your mind, body and spirit – and resolve to fix them, the same way you would get a Rego Check or update your software.

Why? Because this life is precious. Make it glorious.

Creativity is good for you!

Every manmade thing was created by someone.

Someone thought, hey, this could work. This might make things better. This is beautiful.

There’s this idea that creativity is a hallowed space that you enter deliberately.

But no. Cooking dinner is creative. Writing in a birthday card is creative. Creativity is like salt or butter. It makes everything better.

Don’t beat yourself up for not being creative enough. The act of creating anything – even a spreadsheet – is creative.

Instead, congratulate your creativity. Encourage it. Feed it, and pet it, and tell it to come back anytime.

And your personal creativity? It’s perfect and exactly the way it should be. Like DNA, your creativity cannot be replicated by anyone but you.

My advice? Set it free. Let it loose. Let it run around the park and jump in the pond. Let it get dirty and come home panting and stinking.

Because every manmade thing you love – a song, a pen, a book, a glass – was created by someone who thought, hey, this could work. 

Losing babies

My husband and I have one child together but after we had him, we lost five babies at varying stages of gestation.

Without going into the excruciating details, all I can say is that this is a very common experience.

Every second person I speak to shares their story of loss.

One of the midwives who looked after me during my second mid-term loss told me about her best friend’s stillborn child.

My GP told me that his wife had four miscarriages and they never managed to conceive. He said she cried all the time.

My friend called me and told me he and his wife have had three miscarriages, something I knew nothing about previously.

There is a silent river of sorrow running below the surface of life and it’s this opening up, this sharing that creates a well.

It is enormously comforting to hear these stories of loss. It makes our loss feel like an everyday tragedy, not some aberration unique to us.

So please share your stories with whoever needs them. The kindest thing you can do for someone hurting is to show them they’re not alone.

What makes people happy?

I asked about the things that bring you joy and you answered. 

I wanted to know because I think a lot about how we spend our time and money, and how it affects us. 

It turns out that joy has nothing to do with money, or indeed, commerce at all (unless we’re talking about buying coffee, books, movie tickets and wine).

What brings you joy is each other. Your pets. The sunrise. Your morning swim, walk or workout.

You love being in bed with your children, partner, cats and dogs.

You love cooking and eating with friends. You love long baths, quiet moments and naps.

There are so many of us who are heartsore and lonely, longing for comfort and connection. We’re worn out.

So here’s what I prescribe to bring more joy into your life as we approach midwinter.

Stay in bed: Invite someone to stay in bed with you. Cuddle your kids, let your cat sleep on your head, break your grandmother’s rules and let the dog sleep at your feet.

Have dinner together: Make some spicy lentil soup. Slow-cook a casserole. Mash some potatoes with butter or roast a chicken. Sit around a table together with good wine, comfort food and good people.

Get a pet: If you don’t have one, get one. Preferably a snuggly one.

Slow down: Stop and look around. Look at the sky. Meditate. Do a yoga class. Watch the sunrise or sunset. Take a moment to enjoy your tea, coffee, or wine. Read a book. Read a poem. Listen to a song. Have a nap. 

Get out into nature: It’s cold outside but you will feel a whole lot better if you do it. Walk in the park or on the beach. Swim somewhere heated (or swim swiftly!). Go somewhere wild and breathe it in.

Dance: Go out dancing. Dance at home. Dance to your favourite song. Dance yourself free. Whatever you do, just dance.

What do you really like?

This is going to sound stupid but it’s only recently that I have become aware that there’s a divide between what I like and what I think I should like. 

I have spent 42 years subconsciously trying to like things that ‘people like me’ like. And by that I mean the person that I want to be. 

How obnoxious. 

And now I am questioning the preferences I publicly declare and the ones I keep to myself because of how I think it will land. 

I have written about the concept of personal brands before and how I loathe, loathe, loathe this term.

I had a very funny chat about this recently. My friend said she loves Kyle Sandilands but never tells anyone because she thinks people will be horrified.

It’s the same as me and Aldi shopping. I ADORE ALDI. I find the whole experience stupendously fun and I have nailed the art of super fast bag packing. But it’s technically a discount supermarket and what does that say about me?

Same with my hatred of classic novels, oysters and opera. 

Classy people like this stuff, right?

Which means I am evidently not classy. 

Some of my favourite things came from op-shops. I think ‘luxury’ is a con, degustations are decadent (and not in the misused adjective sense), and that this constant seeking of bigger, better, faster is at once sad and revolting. 

I want to be fancy – I really do – but my preferences tell a different story. 

The truth. 

What are you reluctant to admit to liking?

A therapist’s view: How to choose someone to marry

The way we choose someone to marry is completely broken – and here’s why. 

We do interviews and psychometric testing for jobs but when it comes to choosing a life partner, we use a much less rigorous criteria.

People that go into dating with a list are generally frowned upon but there is wisdom in applying reason and good judgement.

It’s not about how much money someone has, or whether they are 6ft tall and attractive.

It’s about values, attitudes, beliefs and fundamental compatibility that extends beyond the physical. 

Marriage used to be an entirely rational and religious institution, if those two concepts can even stand to sit side by side. 

It was about property ownership, bloodlines and familial status.

And then came the age of romance, and the subsequent dismantling of sexual oppression, access to birth control and safe termination of unwanted pregnancies, the rejection of religion and the economic empowerment of women. 

But now we’re in a place where we’re getting married because we want to – and one in two marriages ends in divorce. 

This School of Life article lays it all out plainly. We’re still getting marriage completely wrong. 

Before we go rushing down the aisle, loins aflame, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. Are we culturally aligned?
  2. Are we from the same social class?
  3. Do our views on education match? Do we have a similar level of education?
  4. Do we both like to travel? How do we like to spend our holidays?
  5. Do we both want children? If so, how do we think children should be raised? If my partner already has children, do I like them? Do I want to help raise them? How involved am I willing to be emotionally and financially?
  6. What is my attachment style? What is my partner’s attachment style? Are they compatible?
  7. What is my financial position? What is my attitude to money, and spending? Is it compatible with my partner?
  8. What do we value most in life?
  9. What are my political views? Do they align with the political views of my partner?
  10. What are my beliefs around gender roles? Do they align with those of my partner?
  11. What is my attitude to work? Does it align with the views of my partner?
  12. What type of work does my partner do? Is it compatible with my work?
  13. What is my attitude to sex and fidelity? Is it compatible with my partner’s view of sex and fidelity?
  14. What are my Love Languages? What are my partner’s Love Languages?
  15. What is my conflict style? What is my partner’s conflict style? Where does this sit in Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse theory?
  16. What happened in my previous relationship/s? What emotional baggage from past relationships does my partner have?
  17. Do we have a similar attitude to friends and socialising?
  18. Do we have a similar attitude to the role that immediate and extended family plays in our lives?

There are many, many other factors to consider when choosing someone to marry (Do they like spicy or plain food? Do they like hot weather or cold weather? Do they like comedies or horror movies? Are they a morning person or a night person?) but there are some fundamental things you should take into consideration if you are planning to marry someone. 

Marriage is not just an expensive party, followed by a fancy holiday. 

It is funerals and miscarriages. It is hospitals and doctors. It is supermarkets, and cleaning products and electricity bills. 

It is snoring and farting and sex and laughter. 

It is 9am school assembly, kid’s sport on the weekend and Tuesday night stir fry. 

It is every single day of the rest of your life (if it lasts that long). 

Choosing someone to marry is one of the biggest and most important decisions you’ll ever make, and it has the capacity to mess up your children (if you have them) and wreak havoc on your finances, your family and your heart. 

If it was a drug, it would be heroin in the beginning, and ice in the end. 

If you get it right, it can save you. If you get it wrong, it can kill you. 

Want to read more about relationships? Click here.

How to suffer better

“In my interviews [for the book], women spoke often of suffering, and how it should be expected, rather than just avoided. This taught me to resist my Western tendency not to speak of suffering, but rather to accept that suffering happens to all and to really look at our suffering carefully.”

Min Jin Lee

It has occurred to me lately that I am bad at suffering. I think, ‘Why me? What did I do to deserve this?’

It turns out, a lot of us do this. We are fundamentally unskilled in suffering. I asked all ’round queen of trauma Petrea King about this and she said that it’s possible that my generation lacks resilience because we were raised in a culture of ‘everyone’s a winner’ and ‘you can do anything’. We don’t have the protection of stoicism when we realise that we can’t have/do/be everything.

By denying the inevitability of suffering, we deny ourselves the chance to get better at it. 

Through my recent interviews for my podcast, That Shit Show, and my counselling study and research, I have learnt a few key things. 

You are not alone
Whatever is happening to you, someone else has been through it before. Often, these people are more than happy to talk about it because assisting others forms part of their healing (also known as post-traumatic growth). Seek out people who have been through – or are going through – the same thing and connect with them. Listen to their stories. Find out how they got through it. Everyone’s suffering is unique to their own experiences but there are far more similarities than differences. There are thousands of podcasts, books, websites, online forums and Facebook groups that are devoted to your special flavour of suffering. Find and learn from them.

Suffering is but another name for the teaching of experience, which is the parent of instruction and the schoolmaster of life.     

Horace

You didn’t do anything to deserve it
Suffering happens to absolutely everybody. Nothing you did made the fates choose you. Sure, you might have made some bad choices that led to some less than ideal situations but you are not the focus of some great moral finger pointing. Suffering is an atheist who has a special delivery for everyone. No one deserves suffering but everyone gets it. It’s got nothing to do with virtue or sin. It’s an inevitability of human life. 

When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.    

Chinua Achebe

You don’t have to make it worse
So you’re suffering and it sucks but you don’t need to compound it with a bunch of dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Driving straight to Dan Murphy’s and KFC when things are going wrong will only make things worse. Now is not the time to abandon scientifically supported self-care practices. Focus on the basics – diet, exercise, sleep and social support. You may still feel like a steaming pile of shit but at least you’re supporting your body with kindness and intelligence, as opposed to switching to self destruct mode.

We need to be aware of the suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness and strength so we can help transform the situation.    

Thich Nhat Hanh

Ask for help
Don’t wait until you’re a screaming mess. Ask for help when things start to feel unmanageable. Hell, ask for help whenever you want! You don’t have to wait until you’re in crisis to seek out counselling, medical support or even just an extra pair of hands or a supportive shoulder to lean on. You may not find the right person or people to help you straight off the bat but DO NOT GIVE UP. There is someone out there who can help you. They can’t take your suffering away from you – it is yours and yours alone – but they can help you bear it. 

Suffering is a gift
Sure, it might seem like the worst gift ever, but trust me – it’s a gift. Suffering helps you prioritise who and what is meaningful to you. Suffering provides an impetus to stop wasting time. It shows you how strong you are and it gives you the greatest gift of all – empathy. And empathy helps reduce the suffering of others so there you go – full circle. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.      

Charles Dickens

Why I love trauma

Some of you will know that I have started a podcast called That Shit Show that focuses on overcoming trauma.

So why would anyone in their right mind want to spend so much time thinking and talking about trauma? How could anyone enjoy this stuff?

Well, here’s the thing. I do love it. And I am not some creepy ambulance chaser who loves misery. 

Firstly, it is critically important that people’s personal experiences are validated. It is very rare for people to be given a forum to talk freely, openly and intelligently about the things that have hurt them and changed the course of their lives. 

90 per cent of people experience some form of trauma (and if you haven’t, it’s coming for you). Trauma is NORMAL. It’s going to happen to you so why not prepare?

Why don’t people talk about it?

So many reasons. Shame. Taboo. Fear of being seen as a failure. Fear of making other people uncomfortable or sad. Fear of judgement. The lack of appropriate social forums in which to discuss these issues.

Trauma is often the defining factor in people’s lives. It is the figurative ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I took the road less travelled’. Trauma is the tour guide on that otherroad. 

People who have overcome trauma have important information and lessons to share. 

The key lesson is this: you are not the first person to go through this.

Everyone has a different way of experiencing and getting through trauma but, like climbing a mountain or cooking a particular recipe, why not learn from people who have done it before you?

The challenge is finding someone who has experienced your special flavour of misery. 

Helloooo internet. Hello social media. Hello human family. 

The power of one person’s trauma story to influence the outcome of another person’s trauma story is exponential.

I have experienced this phenomena myself (thank you Liz Ellis).

So my objective is to hear (and validate the pain of) people’s stories, record them, share them and hopefully find an audience who will benefit from the information provided. 

Like anything in human life that causes pain – childbirth, love (and it’s many endings), illness and death – it is helpful and comforting to connect to other people’s experiences of those rites of passage. 

So if you want to talk, I am here. I want to understand what happened to you, why (and how) it hurts and what you learnt. I want to help you carry your pain. And in recording your story, I want it to be like that dorky team building activity where you put your fingers underneath someone and ‘magically’ lift them with a single digit. By giving you a chance to be heard by other people, I hope we can help you carry your burden.