We may not always see the qualities other people value in us, but our strengths are there – we just need to see ourselves from the right angle.
If you had asked me what a manga was nine years ago, before I had lived in France, I probably would have guessed it was some inedible and potentially poisonous cousin of the mango fruit. Or I might have supposed it was an up-and-coming couture house (think Prada, Escada, Kenzo… Manga would fit right it). Given time, I could have come up with quite a few ideas but I never would have guessed that some day I would be taking life advice from one.
Earlier this week, I was discussing the development of self-esteem with a French friend, Elodie, and the role that affirmations of one’s strengths and qualities could play in helping to shore up a shaky sense of self-worth. Modern life coaching techniques include the use of a positive personal affirmation that you can call upon when tempted to negatively compare yourself to others or minimise your own value. Obviously, the first step in developing such a personal statement is to identify your strengths – something a lot of people have a hard time doing. It’s often easy to look at others and pronounce confidently, “Oh, he’s always so generous”, or “She’s such an insightful soul”, but when asked where our own strengths lie, we hum and haw, eventually muttering something like, “Well, I guess I’m pretty punctual…”
Why do we do this? What makes us so reluctant or incapable of appreciating ourselves? Well, according to Elodie, mangas have the answer. Now, for those who don’t know, mangas are neither fruit nor designer handbags – they are Japanese comic books, created for children and adults alike. They are wildly popular in France, and for the last eight years, I have resisted the Beloved’s attempts to get me to read them. I never saw the attraction (partly because his mangas all seem to be about warrior heros fighting with magical forces), but now Elodie has piqued my interest.
As we sat discussing lofty questions of self-esteem and personal growth, Elodie had one of those lightbulb moments, jumping up from the couch and running to rifle through her bookshelves. She returned, triumphant and recounted an episode not from Freud or Jung but from her favourite manga… and it’s all about Asian fast food. Yes, readers, today’s wisdom comes in the form of Japanese rice balls.
The story of Kyo-kun
In the manga story, there is a girl called Kyo-kun who is deeply kind, but who can’t seem to like herself. One day, a friend of hers tells her that people are just like onigiris – Japanese convenience food in the form of rice balls. The rice balls are often filled with umeboshi (pickled plums). The balls are formed in such as way that you can only see the filling from one side, the same way you can see the spot where jam has been pumped into a doughnut. Kyo-kun’s friend tells her:
If you think of someone’s good qualities as the umeboshi in an onigiri, it’s as if their qualities are stuck to their back. People all around the world are like onigiri. Everyone has an umeboshi with a different shape and colour and flavour. But because it’s stuck on their back, they can’t always see it. We think, “There’s nothing special about me. I’m just white rice”. But that’s not true – there is an umeboshi – on your back. Maybe the reason people get jealous of each other is because they can see so clearly the umeboshi on other people’s backs. I can see them, too. I can see them perfectly. There’s an amazing umeboshi on your back, Kyo-kun.
Our own sweet filling
It’s hard to see our own special qualities, often because to us they are just a normal part of who we are, but it’s important to stop and see them for the strengths they really are. Our qualities are our allies, helping us through life’s challenges. When we start appreciating instead of denying them or assuming that other people’s qualities are better, more numerous, or more valuable, we strengthen them and can draw on their full power.
Whether it takes a good friend to help you see the umeboshi stuck to your back, or a manga comic book, or even a 360° mirror, the benefits of identifying, knowing and owning your best self are multifold.
In the long grey winter months, it’s easy to be negative and hard to act cheery, but just as you are what you eat, so too you feel what you focus on. Choose to change your focus.
You can’t really argue with the Ten Commandments. I mean, as rules for happy and harmonious living go, they’re a pretty solid base: don’t kill; don’t cheat on your spouse; don’t steal; don’t lie. So far, I’m on board. Have a day of rest every week. Yep! Take care of your parents. Absolutely. Without wishing to labour the point, I don’t think many people would take exception to any of the above, whatever their religious leanings. Sadly, however, I have often felt that one commandment was missing.
Don’t get me wrong. Ten is a great figure – it’s even, pleasingly round, fits with our decimal currency, can be nicely spaced out into two five-item lists on a couple of handy stone tablets. I can totally see why Moses would get to the end of dictation, see a nice symmetrical pair of lists, and casually decide to leave commandment Number 11 at the top of the hill, but honestly, I really think he dropped the ball. Our lives would be infinitely more pleasant had he just added one last rule to the list:
Thou shalt not whine
The addition of those four little words to that fateful list would have made such a difference, wouldn’t it? Whining is perhaps one of the least attractive traits in a person, and is certainly one of the most draining. I have an acquaintance – let’s call her Wendy – who, whenever I ask the innocent question, “How are you?” replies with some permutation of, “Oh, I’m so tired. Yep, really shattered – I worked until 10 o’ clock every evening last week. It’s just crazy.” When I first knew Wendy I made the mistake of trying to help her with this apparent problem – suggesting she speak to her boss about her workload, asking whether she was eating properly, that sort of thing. Recently, however, I had an epiphany (I don’t know why I’m on such a religious theme today, I’m on a roll and I’m just going with it). I realised that Wendy isn’t actually asking for help, nor does she need to talk. The bottom line is: Wendy likes whining. And she particularly likes whining about being tired.
You feel what you focus on
I don’t actually know anyone who isn’t tired right now. In the bleak midwinter, it’s dark when you go to work, dark when you leave work. You’re trying to lose the Christmas bulge, keep that resolution to go to the gym, maybe even give up or cut down on something – cigarettes, chocolate, wine… The post-Christmas winter months can feel grim at times, and yes, they’re tiring. But does saying you’re tired all the time help at all? If, every time someone asks me how I’m doing I answer, “Crikey, this rain is getting me down, I just can’t seem to get warm, and I have a splitting headache”, all I can think of by the end of the day is the rain and the cold and the headache and, lo and behold, it’s all actually worse than at the beginning of the day. But if I reply, “I’m great, thanks! Looking forward to a quiet night in, that’s for sure”, miraculously, I can actually convince myself that I do indeed feel full of beans, and that quiet night has become a choice I’m making in order to take care of myself. I find that I feel what I talk about; which means that I don’t also choose to talk about what I feel.
Accentuate the positive
Now, I’m not suggesting we bottle up our feelings or lie, but unless mentioning aches, pains, gripes and groans will actually do some good, why go on about them? Now, whenever I see Wendy, I avoid asking how she is and instead pose very specific, fact-based questions: What did you do this weekend? Did you go jogging like you wanted? It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that not only does Wendy’s whining about being knackered exacerbate her own tiredness, it also exhausts me! If only she could take her focus off the negatives she’s feeling and concentrate on something – anything – positive, that good feeling would be increased instead of the bad. The mind is like a magnifying glass – whatever we choose put under the lens is what our eyes will see enlarged; whatever feeling we choose to talk and think about is what we’ll feel magnified. Luckily, we get to pick what we train our lens on. So, it’s precisely when I’m tired and a bit hungry and maybe a little paranoid that I try hardest to remember to apply the 11th commandment and silently order myself not to whine.
Get happy: give thanks now to shore up your soul for days when reasons to be cheerful seem few and far between.
My beloved, who’s a lofty and well-built 6ft1, often ribs me about my somewhat more dinky stature – I’m a whole foot shorter than him (if you’re reading this on the continent, 1m84 vs. 1m59). It’s usually stuff about me jumping to reach the higher shelves at the supermarket, or making sure I avoid puddles in the rain in case I drown. If we see a large group of children, he’ll grab my hand and tell me to keep close in case their teacher mistakes me for one of them and I get swept off to primary school. I’d always found these little jokes between us sweet and funny – until this week, when my beloved’s fears came close to reality. Cue scary music.
The day began like any other…
I was wending my way to work one morning when I spied a group of be-wellingtoned kids kicking up the fallen leaves and having what looked like a lot of fun. Now, we live in a part of Paris that has a huge quantity of trees – we’re right near a large park, and the roads around it have been decked out with foliage for aesthetic consistency – so you can imagine how big that pile of leaves was and how crisp, dry, golden and, well, inviting.
Reader, I had to. Without thinking, I was in there myself, kicking up the leaves and having a fine old time. The funny thing was, people didn’t really seem to notice – leading my beloved to comment that I simply blended in so well with the other children that nobody noticed that I was a fully grown adult. Ha ha, most amusing.
Back to school
Anyway, the point behind these ramblings is that this week, I played in the fallen leaves and loved it. In that moment, I was so happy to live where I do and was utterly filled with gratitude for the trees in our quartier, the extra five minutes I had left myself so I didn’t have to rush that morning, the stroke of luck we’d had in finding our apartment right there (another tale, another time). Maybe it was because I was behaving like a schoolgirl, but I was suddenly transported back to my secondary school assemblies, where the autumn hymn of choice was always “Autumn days”. Anyone who grew up in the UK will have come across this harvest festival classic :
Autumn days when the grass is jewelled,
And the silk inside the chestnut shell,
Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled –
All the things I love so well!
So I mustn’t forget, no I mustn’t forget –
To say a great big thank you, I mustn’t forget.
I’m a big fan of all things autumnal, and that morning ditty was always my favourite. Even as a kid, I could relate to the idea that we all have such a lot in our lives (especially in Europe and North America), that it’s essential not only to be aware that we have a lot but also to feel and express that joy and gratitude.
The Glad Game
In Britain, we have the harvest festival to celebrate Mother Nature’s bounty, in Canada they do it in October, and in the US this month, the hustle and bustle of life will stop for one day so that loved ones can come together and perhaps think about all the good in their lives, offering a up a silent or a spoken “thank you”. For me, the Canadian and American Thanksgiving holidays are a cue to remember how happy I am to have some dear Canadian and American friends in my life – and to write and tell them.
So, whether it’s because of the blatant indoctrination practiced by my school in making me sing that hymn every autumn or because of friends scattered across the globe, this time of year I’m reminded more than ever of all I have to be glad about (I truly think Pollyanna had the right idea). There are so many little things that can easily be forgotten, but that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Admittedly, it’s hard to feel glad on cold, rainy days when the bus is late and you drop your new phone in a puddle, yet that’s precisely when you most need to remember your abundant blessings. That’s why it’s crucial to make that list – mentally or on paper – on days when life is a cruise ship rather than a destroyer. I’m starting right now, with both the big things and the small – in no particular order.
I’m thankful for the EU – without it my life in Paris would be harder, or perhaps would never have been possible.
I’m grateful I don’t have any allergies.
Gizmo, from the film Gremlins.
I thank God every day for my beloved – there are no words.
I’m thankful that I have loving and supportive parents, to whom I owe everything.
Alain de Botton, Jasper Fforde, Jane Austen and Richard Carlson.
I’m really glad I managed to stop biting my nails.
French cheeses – say no more.
I’m so grateful for my cherished friends – every one of them nourishes and teaches me.
I’m deeply thankful that someone, at some point, invented musical theatre, and that my mum introduced me to it at an early age.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to write this column and for the readers who enjoy it.
Love Actually and It’s a Wonderful Life.
I’m thankful for the autumn days, when the grass is jewelled, and their wordless reminder to say a great big thank you.
On bright days when our cup runneth over, it’s easy to be optimistic and roll with the punches – positive thinking is second nature to us. However, not every day is a bright day. Sometimes, we wake up to find that, overnight, while nothing has actually changed in our lives, the world has fallen off kilter… The job offer that yesterday seemed so promising, today looks dead-end and badly-paid. The home in which we felt so comfortable now looks pokey and shabby. The relationships that seemed secure now appear shallow and tenuous.
Most of us want to act in these moments. We want to get to work fixing the problems we perceive to be the cause of our misery. We never stop to realise that the only thing that has changed between yesterday and today is our mood, which is a result of our thinking. What we need at these times is not a solution but a mental shake. When film characters get the blues, they inevitably sit at a bar – alone – and happen to get talking to some gorgeous, semi-mystic stranger who sees into their troubled soul and says something profound and perceptive that gives them just the boost they need. How convenient. Sadly, life isn’t a film, and I have never happened upon a man in a bar who looks like Hugh Jackman and spouts the wisdom of the Dalai Lama. Maybe I’m going to the wrong bars. So, we have to create our own contingency plans. Less glamourous than a divine stranger with just the right thing to say but just as effective is the classic note-to-self scrawled on the humble post-it note.
I believe in the power of the ‘Universe’ as much as the next girl, but I also believe in the power of me and my own capacity to pull myself out of the doldrums. I don’t want to leave it to the universe or wait for Hugh Jackman to walk into my life and deliver the killer line that parts the clouds; I take matters into my own hands. I’m preparing now for the days when I’m not my usual sunny self that brims over with perspective – scrawling notes to myself on post-its to be re-read when that little mental shake is needed. So, here are the top three pieces of advice I’d like to come across on a rainy day. The snippets of wisdom that seem so blindingly obvious in the moment, but that I know I’ll forget on my off days.
Worry is like a rocking horse: you can sit and rock all day but it won’t get you anywhere.
We’ve all been there. It’s 3 a.m. and sleep just isn’t happening. We toss and turn and contemplate the day to come. In that moment, even the prospect of a weekend away can take on elephantine proportions and spawn a thousand possibilities for disaster. These range from the practical (Will I get the train on time?) to the anxiously speculative (Maybe I should take the walking boots, after all. What if it rains?), and the downright ridiculous (What if the B&B doesn’t have muesli– I’ll have to eat a full English breakfast – I’ll balloon at least two sizes overnight…). This type of worry is like that rocking horse. No matter how much you stew and how many scenarios you envisage, it will never get you anywhere.
So what do you do at 3 a.m., when the demons circle your bed? The first thing to do is get up and take action to allay the more practical concerns. Make sure the alarm is set, take a quick look at your hotel reservation, pack the walking boots. Then, choose a couple of your more left-field worries and logically deconstruct them: “OK, the B&B might not have muesli, but that doesn’t mean I have to scoff a full fry-up. Two days is not going to make a difference on the scales, and even if it does, letting go for a couple of days will be a well-earned treat, besides the fact that having breakfast cooked for me is a huge luxury to be enjoyed and not feared!” Then, when you’ve taken action to turn the flood of worries into a trickle, get off the rocking horse. Simply stop engaging in those thoughts. Dismount, and trust that whatever happens, you’ll deal with it as best you can – and feel safe in the knowledge that your best will be so much better after a good night’s sleep.
Put a positive spin on it.
Remember the film White Christmas? If you haven’t seen it, break with tradition and watch it now – in the middle of summer. One of my favourite scenes is when Bing Crosby sings to the classy but sleepless Rosemary Clooney:
When I am worried and I can’t sleep,
I count my blessings instead of sheep.
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.
When my bankroll is getting small,
I think of when I had none at all.
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.
Sage advice indeed. It’s hard to stay gloomy when you’re listing all the things that good in your life. Now, I know what you’re going to say: when you’re feeling down, it feels as if nothing is good. Well, that’s just the point. For example, today the world is against me: it’s raining, I have a really busy work day, I ladder my tights (naturally), I miss the bus, and by the time I arrive at work (late), my morale is in my boots. It takes some effort to find gratitude, but it’s right now that it’s most required. I start listing: ok, rain – what’s good about rain? Well, I won’t have to water the garden this evening. Next, busy day – I’m in demand and my opinion is respected, so people ask me to be in meetings, that’s a good thing. OK, the tights were a casualty of my own haste and are hard to spin… erm, good excuse to buy some fabulous glossy hold-ups! And, yes, the bus was late, but at least I got a seat.
It can take Herculean force to cross to the sunny side of the street when the cosmos plots against you, but even finding the tiniest silver lining helps. And your list will always increase exponentially – gratitude breeds gratitude.
When you’re in a negative spiral, it can feel like driving a car too fast on a slippery road approaching a bend. Panic causes paralysis, and we have a tendency to freeze and, ironically, accelerate. On the days when a pity party sounds like fun, a similar kind of emotional panic sets in. Your logical brain knows you’re behind the wheel and, technically, in control, but your feet can’t seem to find the brakes. You know that staying in your bathrobe isn’t helping, that the portable black hole you bought to crawl into is not the answer, and that listening to Céline’s rendition of All By Myself on a loop is propelling you into worryingly Bridget-esque territory, but your wagon of self-flagellation continues to career towards the abyss.
What will it take to make you hit the brakes? We all take the hint when we see a red light or a stop sign. Well, now’s the time for a well-placed roadside stop sign. A big, red circle screaming DESIST! – yes, you can even give it an exclamation mark if you like. Imagine your roadside STOP sign and mentally obey. STOP. STOP. STOP. Stop hitting yourself over the head and move your arse. Right, that’s enough wallowing. Stand up, put on some music, dance, sing, go to the cinema, have a shower, phone a friend, take a walk, bake a cake, clear out your wardrobe, clean the bathroom…embark upon any activity other than self-destructive thinking.
There’s a lot to be said for a post-it. When the blues come to call, we all need something to shake us awake and back into positivity – or at least something to make us realise that we’re just in a low mood and that action is unnecessary. It is on such dark days that we most need our inner wisdom and yet, in one of life’s cruelly ironic twists, it is in precisely these moments that our wisdom is the least accessible to us. So, in true Boy Scout fashion, be prepared. Keep a list of mood-boosting techniques you’ll be glad to re-read in times of trouble. What about making a list of the perfect films to watch and songs to play? Add some photos of amazing times in your life, a pressed flower from a treasured bouquet, a favourite poem. Remind yourself of the best people to call, and call them. Going out and spending time with other people is often the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling down, but it never fails to give you much-needed perspective. Whether it’s just enjoying the company of people you love (yes, you do have some – seriously, turn that flippin’ Céline song off!) or listening to someone else’s problems and realising that yours are not the only crises in the world. In fact, reaching out a hand to someone in need – listening to a friend, offering help with a project, or simply doing something spontaneously nice for someone – is the ultimate mood-booster. Not out of some kind of schadenfreude, but because being of service and bringing joy to others is the quickest route to bringing joy to yourself. And if you believe you can’t do much, think on the words of Mother Teresa: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do”.
And, if worst comes to worst, offer up your problem to the universe: take your reminder list to read at a local café, treat yourself to a frothy coffee, and keep an eye out for that Hugh/Dalai hybrid. You never know…