You are not a lobster

Feeling trapped? These helpful tips will leave you feeling less like the lobster in the tank at your local Chinese restaurant.

Sometimes it is easy to feel just like the lobster in the overcrowded tank at a Chinese restaurant – trapped and hopeless. Thankfully none of us are like that lobster. Our fate is not sealed. No one is going to crack us over the head with a cleaver and fry us up with ginger and soy sauce. We have options!

Whenever I am feeling stuck, I like to repeat it to myself.

I am not a lobster.

I am not a lobster.

I am not a lobster.

While it may be ridiculous, it serves as an excellent reminder of my free will. Just knowing I have options is an amazingly helpful starting point, which makes me feel a little less like a pitiful restaurant crustacean.

If like me, you are a practical, analytical, get sh*t done kind of person, you will immediately want to evaluate these options, solve the problem and make the world right, so that you no longer have to feel these awful lobsterish feelings. This inclination towards problem-solving is shared by many people. Even Vanilla Ice rapped in his 1990 hit, Ice Ice Baby “if there was a problem, yo I’ll solve it.”

Psychologists will however tell you that jumping straight into Vanilla Ice problem-solving mode is not the most helpful approach. Instead, it helps to pause and identify the emotion that has emerged (e.g. here’s that icky stuckness or here’s frustration). What can be even more helpful, is to actually feel our emotions (even though they may be uncomfortable emotions that we don’t particularly want to feel).

Rather than fight them or push them away, sitting with emotions and listening to their messages can be transformative and insightful. Often the thing we think is the problem, isn’t the big problem. It’s the other thing. The thing we haven’t dealt with. The thing that’s actually making us feel stuck.

Sitting with uncomfortable emotions isn’t altogether pleasant. Doing so requires a little bit of practice and a whole lot of kind self-talk. When we develop that self-compassionate inner voice, it can deliver some very supportive and practical advice.

It may tell us “this is tough, but you are doing your best right now and that’s enough.”

It may ask us “what does the part of me that is feeling this discomfort need from me right now?”

It may reassure us “this feels painful, but its part of being human and it’s temporary.”

It may help us get back on track. “I see we’re jumping into problem-solving mode. how about we just take a breath and re-focus.”

As we develop these skills, we become better able to recognise, process and integrate what we are experiencing. We may also become less beholden to our inner critic.

When we are feeling low and horrible and stuck, we tend to be visited by our self-critic, who will tell us all sorts of hurtful, unhelpful things. I tend to imagine my inner critic as Thom Yorke from Radiohead, singing “I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.” He just changes the words up to suit the particular malaise. For instance, “I am dumb. I am an idiot. Why the hell did I try to fix my bike myself? I am not mechanically gifted.”

For me, one of the most sure-fire ways to feel terrible is to attempt to perform any type of bike maintenance. With my bike in bits, tools scattered everywhere and nothing to show for my labours but cuts all over my fingers, I generally feel like Thom Yorke and Vanilla Ice, riding a giant lobster. It’s a particularly unpleasant mix of hopelessness, self-loathing and rapid but ineffective problem solving.

Practical self-compassion is about giving yourself a break. It’s about having an inner cheerleader who will say things like “Good on you for giving it a crack! Even though bike mechanics may not be your forte and you have soft office hands, you are brave for trying. Maybe just take a moment, take a deep breath… perhaps clean up those hands, put a band-aid on that nasty cut and we will see where we go from there.”

Once I have applied this self-compassion I tend to think a bit more clearly. Instead of just trying to pull harder on a wrench, I might look at a YouTube video of someone who knows what they are doing and realise, “Oh, the whatchamacallit is on the thingamajig backwards and that’s why it’s not working!”

Chances are, you may be dealing with a whole range of problems that are more complex than a pushbike’s gears. The same strategies will, however, serve you well.

When we pause, we can ask ourselves: What is this I’m feeling? What’s really getting to me? What values is this pressing on? We can then discover the real issue and work out whether it is something we can make peace with or something we can change.

Rather than continually beat ourselves up for not reaching our own impossible standards, it can be exceptionally helpful to say “I’m doing the best I can right now with what I have and that’s okay!”

Being self-compassionate does not make you soft – it’s actually the thing that allows you to live life in a far, far braver way. When we apply self-compassion we stop making decisions out of fear or shame or the desire to quickly get rid of an uncomfortable emotion. Instead, we can become a good friend to ourselves when we need it most. When we are self-compassionate, we can allow ourselves to be human and make mistakes, which means we can always do the brave thing and feel less like a lobster.