In your life you have probably received a whole lot of well-meaning yet horrible advice. Unfortunately, common wisdom is commonly a bit misguided and sometimes following it can be downright dangerous to your mental wellbeing. Here are five pieces of advice you definitely shouldn’t be taking.
- Just try not to think about it
Thoughts are determined little buggers. If you try to ignore them, they will keep popping up, eager to get your attention (psychologists refer to this as the rebound effect). If you continue to push them back down, it will inevitably end up like you are playing an exhausting, never-ending game of whack-a-mole. Telling someone “try not to think about it” is completely terrible advice.
If you were brought up in a religious environment, you may have received similar advice, dished out with a side serving of shame. Anyone who has been told “you mustn’t think impure thoughts” will likely have found that this did nothing to stop those “impure” thoughts from popping up. It may however have made you feel very bad for having them.
When you learn mindfulness, you learn to interact with your thoughts in a very different way. You learn that each thought is just a thought – it’s not necessarily wise, useful or who you are. You don’t have to rush to get rid of any thought. Instead you can observe it and you can determine whether or not it’s useful.
2.Don’t get all emotional
When someone says “don’t get all emotional” what they are really saying is “I’m terrible at dealing with emotions. Please just pretend everything is okay, so I can feel less awkward.”
Emotions are very useful things, but from a young age we are taught that certain emotions are bad. We become scared of them, ashamed of them and we certainly don’t want to be seen with them. After all, “boys don’t cry” and “you mustn’t cause a scene.”
Many of us have inherited the British stiff upper lip, or come from other equally shut-off cultures where displaying normal emotional reactions is very much frowned upon and misguidedly characterised as ‘weak’. The thing is, you are a fully functioning human being and you really shouldn’t aspire to be a mere robot. Emotions serve a really useful purpose – they help us make sense of the world and make decisions in line with our values. It helps if we can understand emotions and view them as messengers, rather than attempt to shut them off.
3.Just try to be happy
If you just try to be happy all the time, you are completely doomed for failure. Happiness is after all an ephemeral state – it comes and it goes.
While I know playing with a puppy dog makes me incredibly happy, I also know that when that puppy pees on my couch I’m likely to feel angry and when that puppy grows old and dies I will feel really sad. No one gets to pick and choose emotions. You can’t block some out and feel the others. It just doesn’t work like that. To interact with emotions more successfully you first need to accept that you will experience a full range of emotions and be able to honour them all.
The pursuit of happiness is a rather misguided one. You can’t simply track happiness down, devour it and be satisfied. A far more successful approach is to pursue your values. Do that and you will lead a richer, more meaningful life… and you may actually end up spending more time being happy.
4.Take a spoonful of concrete and harden up
For men in particular there is this idea we can deal with anything by being tough, stoic and coldly detached… but when we take this approach we are really not dealing with anything. It just basically eats away inside of us, while we go on pretending we are James Bond.
It is not however just men who can be bullied in to “hardening up”. In many workplaces women also feel enormous pressure to tough it out and keep emotions at bay.
Being tough is not the same thing as being resilient. If you want to become resilient, you don’t need to “take a spoonful of concrete and harden up”… but you may need to find real bravery in other ways.
Often the bravest act is simply reaching out for support. It’s very easy to act tough and follow the same dumb, destructive “hard” paths that generations before have taken. It’s only the truly brave who will take off all that heavy protective armour and allow themselves to be a bit vulnerable whilst really dealing with something that is causing pain.
5.Just have a beer and forget about it
Humans come up with all sorts of ingenious ways to avoid dealing with the difficult stuff that goes on in our minds. Alcohol is one of the most common. The only problem is, it doesn’t actually solve any problems. Instead it creates more. In trying to forget about your problems, you may also have forgotten where your keys are, drunk-dialled your ex and landed yourself with a shocking hangover. Use this avoidance strategy regularly and the consequences can be even more damaging.
Other common avoidance strategies include overeating, undereating, popping pills, gambling, online shopping and obsessive computer gaming. When we become reliant on these avoidance strategies, our problems don’t go away – they multiply. It all becomes a vicious circle that could be avoided… if only we learned to stop avoiding things.
5 non-crap bits of advice to take yourself and pass on to others in need.
- It’s just a thought. While it may feel real – It’s not wise, important or who you are.
- Listen to your emotions. They are probably telling you something important.
- Happiness isn’t everything. Honour your values and do what matters most.
- Trying to be tough won’t make you resilient. Be brave and reach out.
- Beer won’t help. Avoidance just multiplies problems, it doesn’t solve them.