Exhausted and emotional Sophie, 42 from London asks our new Agony Aunt Sally Brown: ‘Is this it? Why aren’t I happy?’
Calling all Healthistas. Do you have a problem you need to get off your chest? Be it work, love or health related we can help. Meet our new Agony Aunt, psychotherapist Sally Brown who is here to bring your detailed advice to even the most complicated of problems.
I’m 42 and have always been ambitious, but now I’ve got to where I’ve always wanted to be I’m asking, is this it? And why aren’t I happy? I feel stressed and exhausted all the time but I feel like I’m trapped as I’m the family’s main breadwinner (we have two young children) and we’ve got used to the standard of living my salary brings. I’m all calm and smiley at work, but I evolve into superbitch at home, snapping at my husband and kids then feeling wracked with guilt.
I know something has to change but feel like I have no choice but to carry on
I want to relax and have fun with them, but there’s always a load of washing to do or the kitchen to sort out. I rarely have the energy to go out anymore but when I do, I end up drinking far too much, enjoying the sense of release at the time, then hating myself the next morning. Even holidays don’t help – I’m super stressed getting everything done before we go then spend the whole time dreading what I’ve got to do when I get back. I know something has to change but feel like I have no choice but to carry on.
As I read your letter I got an image of you trapped at the bottom of a deep hole. There’s a spade in your hand so you do the only thing you can do – you dig. But no matter how hard you dig, you don’t get out of the hole. You only find yourself deeper in the hole. So you think, well, I’m obviously digging all wrong, so I need to dig harder, or dig in a different way. But no matter which way you dig, you just keep getting deeper into the hole. Sophie, I’d like to invite you to Put Down That Spade. It’s time to stop trying so hard.
I’m going to take a guess that friends and family would describe you as a perfectionist.
I’m going to take a guess that friends and family would describe you as a perfectionist. Whatever you do, you give it 110 per cent. And that’s no doubt worked out well for you in the past, helping you achieve academically and work your way up the career ladder. So it’s no surprise you’re feeling bewildered right now – you’re still being a Good Girl, working diligently and conscientiously, setting yourself super-high standards at work and in your personal life. But despite your hard work, your life feels like it’s spinning faster and faster out of kilter. It must be terrifying.
you’re still being a Good Girl, working diligently and conscientiously, setting yourself super-high standards at work and in your personal life
Here’s the bottom line – you cannot do this any longer. You are heading for burnout, and are putting both your mental and physical health at risk. You always do the right thing, but keeping going is not the right thing here. It is most definitely the Wrong Thing for both you and your family.
That doesn’t mean handing in your notice at work. I get that you’re the breadwinner and there’s a mortgage and bills to pay. You’re also ambitious and no doubt good at your job and the thought of giving up such a core component of your personal identity may be scary.
But no matter how often you tell yourself that ‘of course, it makes sense for me to be the one that works full-time. I earn more and I like my job,’ there’s a cauldron of resentment bubbling away (‘why do I have to do everything round here? Why can’t he get more work? Or just tidy up the freeking kitchen?’). There’s nothing noble about such thoughts so you may be reluctant to even acknowledge them, but that seething cauldron of feelings is the reason you morph into ‘Mrs Snappy’ as soon as you step through your front door.
no matter how often you tell yourself that ‘of course, it makes sense for me to be the one that works full-time’, there’s a cauldron of resentment bubbling away
So it’s time to let your partner know that you want, need and expect more from him. Be specific. What can he do today to help you? Hang up the washing rather than leaving it in the machine for you to do when you get back? Move the dirty dishes from the sink to the dishwasher? And what can he do in the long-term to shoulder more of the financial burden? Has he really exhausted all options?
Is that ‘standard of living’ you say you’ve got used to more important than your happiness?
And while you’re being honest, you could also have a frank conversation with yourself. According to a recent survey, 50 per cent of women say they plan to make a major life change to seek more personal fulfilment before they reach 45. But crucially, they said they would be happy to earn less money to switch to a job that makes them feel better about themselves. Is that ‘standard of living’ you say you’ve got used to more important than your happiness? Than your children growing up with an angry mum instead of a happy one? Yes, it’s a massive step, so for the moment, why not simply hold the possibility of change in the back of your mind? It’s like setting a filter on your brain to look out for new opportunities. You may be surprised at what you start to notice.
Then Sophie, I want you to do two things. Firstly, you need to add one pleasurable experience to every single day. An academic called Dr David Schkade from the University of California did a study a few years ago that asked 900 women to write down everything they did the day before and analyse how it made them feel. It came as a complete shock to most that they actively disliked the majority of their day. But he then asked them to swap one hour of something they disliked for one hour of something pleasurable every day. When they reported back a few weeks later, this one simple change had made a significant difference to both their stress and their happiness levels.
There’s a new buzz phrase in the world of psychology right now: ‘prioritising positivity’ about organising your every day life around activities that bring pleasure
There’s a new buzz phrase in the world of psychology right now: ‘prioritising positivity’. It’s about organising your every day life around activities that bring pleasure, and a growing number of experts think it could be a solution to society’s rising anxiety levels. Pleasure tends to be an afterthought when you’re a perfectionist. You’re much more driven by purpose. But lasting contentment is only possible when we find a balance of both.
lasting contentment is only possible when we find a balance of pleasure and purpose
Could you find space for one thing a day, however small, that brings you a hit of joy? Could you walk around a park in your lunch-hour or have a cup of tea with your funniest friend? When you get home tonight, what could you do instead of tidying the kitchen or unloading the washing machine that would make you feel good – read to your children? Do a yoga DVD? Curl up on the couch and watch a rom-com? Put it right at the top of your to-do list. If you really savour those moments, tiny pleasures like this punch way above their weight in terms of sustaining your soul and stopping life feeling like a treadmill. At the moment you’re so deprived of pleasure it’s no wonder you guzzle it down in liquid form when you have a rare night out.
tiny pleasures punch way above their weight in terms of sustaining your soul
Your second task is to be kinder to yourself. Feeling guilt and self-hatred on a regular basis is as toxic for your mental wellbeing as smoking is for your body. Sophie, you’re doing the best you can and you’re a good person, and I’d like you to remind yourself of that on a regular basis. Bonkers as it may sound, give yourself lots of hugs – actually put your arms around yourself and say, ‘you’re doing OK’. Your brain can’t differentiate between kindness from yourself and kindness from another person, and the hit of oxytocin you get is what you need to soothe your frazzled brain right now. In the long-term, self-compassion is like a secret super-power, building both resilience and self-confidence.
you’re doing the best you can and you’re a good person, and I’d like you to remind yourself of that on a regular basis
Being a perfectionist has served you well, but now is a great time in your life to experiment with aiming for just ‘good enough’ for a while. It’s only when we put down our metaphorical spade, sit down and look around, that we can spot those little toe-holds cut into the sides of our hole and climb out.
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About Sally Brown
Sally Brown says she loves finding out what makes people tick. She’s the one who will winkle out your life story if you sit next to her at a dinner party. She feels extremely lucky to make a living from hearing those stories, and helping people make sense of their lives and reach their true potential. Registered with the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists, which means she has the qualifications and experience to work safely and effectively, she also writes about emotional and psychological health for the national press. Find out more at therapythatworks.co.uk.