Hello Master’s Degree: Expanding My Ingrained Notion of Creativity

Well, it’s not that I’ve previously considered academic writing to be the opposite of creative writing as such, but I realise that, perhaps unconsciously, I’ve nevertheless been biased towards writing stories, lyrics, and poems.

Academic writing has been an enjoyable challenge, but my goal was always to be a fiction writer. Don’t get me wrong: I still want to be a fiction writer (you know, one of those who actually get paid). 

Call it an approaching mid-thirties crisis, one more desperate push to impress whoever it is making me feel permanently inadequate, or a realisation I’ve wasted far too much time and energy and missed far too many opportunities to do something I can be proud of — regardless of how much, if any, money I can make from it — but I’ve just applied for a part time, online uni course in English literature. 

As a lot of you have probably also done, I’ve spent quite some time during the past 16 months regretting things I haven’t done (yet) and planning for positive changes. One of those plans, as previously mentioned, is my three year running plan. Another is to save up for a deposit to buy a house (and I’ll keep as many cats as I like and paint the walls whatever colour I want!). And a 1.5 year plan of getting my Master’s in English Literature. 

Confession

I am one of those nerds who love studying. I love reading, researching, plowing through secondary literature and grappling with theories and methods and drinking far too much coffee whilst agonising over the fact I’m just not smart enough to analyse Shakespeare or creative enough to harbour a single original thought. Well, OK, perhaps I could live without the agony, but I’ve at least accepted severe self-doubt is part of my writing cycle. 

For years, I have somehow resisted the idea of doing a(nother) literature degree as I imagined that if I ever did move on to do a master, it’d be in creative writing. And then I resisted the idea because I kept thinking of it in terms of, well, money. Basically, is it worth the time and effort if I don’t intend to apply for jobs that require a master’s in literature (slim pickings)?

The conclusion that I’ve come to is: Yes. Yes it is. Why? Why not? What’s wrong with doing something just because you enjoy it? I’ve got some job security, some financial security, I’m doing well mental health wise, and I miss studying. I miss making notes, reading the same passages over and over again until finally something happens and I realise I get it. I miss slaving over an essay, editing and rewriting, and finally getting feedback and hopefully a good grade and that feeling of having accomplished something — feeling proud over something I’ve done even if none of my friends or family or strangers will want to read it or will understand it if they do read it. And the imminent future is still looking uncertain pandemic-wise, so if not now, when?

And, you know, once a nerd, always a nerd. I’ve even got the glasses now.

So to get back to the question of creativity, I have come to realise something else: although I love fiction writing, when I studied Creative Writing, I struggled to be creative “on demand” — I am much happier writing fiction when nobody tells me to. And although I love writing academic essays, I struggle to be academic on my own free will, so to speak, whereas I thrive on the pressure of writing an essay with a set deadline I didn’t give myself. 

Reading some of my old essays, I also remember how creatively powerful writing them made me feel. I don’t feel restricted by rules and convention, and whilst I know a lot of people don’t like “dry” academic language (As if that’s even a bad thing!), I’ve always found it fascinatingly challenging to not only read, but write academically. I take immense pleasure in both reading and crafting a good title — which is harder than it looks!

Finally, Rachel Carson did pretty well going from fiction to academia, and Silent Spring is far from a dull, uninspiring piece of writing.

So hello, English Literature, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again. 

What I Said I’d Never Do: Social Anxiety and Perfectionism

The things we do in order to share our creative pursuits…! Usually, when you’re living with SAD, it’s the things we don’t do, but often, the do’s and the don’ts cause us the same amount of misery, only perhaps in slightly different ways. 


The don’ts make us feel unfulfilled, worthless, frustrated, but safe. The do’s make us feel frightened, useless, misunderstood, and vulnerable. Both states are hard to live with, leaving us constantly oscillating between what we really want and what we think we need to do in order to protect ourselves.


I say “we”, but who am I to say what anyone else is feeling? I mean to say that am oscillating. 


But as the cliché goes, I’m getting older, and more frustrated I’m wasting precious time and talent being scared of bloody everything. I’ve started pulling out all the metaphorical guns: anti-depressants, person-centred counselling, CBT, exercise, mindfulness, saying “yes” when I really want to say “hell, no!” I’m slowly, slowly making progress, and am determined to keep going. 


But…


How can I learn the difference between saying no because I’m scared and because I just don’t want to do it? Do I not like making videos and posting on social media because I’m scared of trolling and harsh criticism, or because I’m just not interested in plastering my face all over the internet? Do I not like being interviewed or do podcasts because it makes me anxious and uncomfortable or because I’m just not interested in talking about music, only making it?


I recently did take part in a podcast. It’s fairly high-profile, I guess, and of course a great opportunity to promote my music, but it was not an enjoyable experience, before, during, or after. Not because the other participants weren’t perfectly pleasant, like-minded creative people, but because there are few things I can think of that would cause me more anxiety than being filmed whilst talking about myself, knowing it will be seen by potentially thousands of people and available online for all eternity or until the internet implodes. 


I managed. Just. Thanks to my anti-depressants, my anxiety levels seemed to be kept at a manageable level: no butterfly colony on MDMA in my stomach, no involuntary shaking of various limbs, no major heart palpitations, no sweating profusely. But hello, dry mouth! Despite drinking lots of water, my mouth was Death Valley. Out of all the things I had imagined could go wrong, not being able to speak properly due to my lips getting glued to my gums was not one of them. 


I’m fairly certain I didn’t look anyone in the eye, turning my head from the camera every time I spoke, and I hardly remember what I said, except for one embarrassing mistake which I now assume will be the incorrect fact all the comments on YouTube will point out. “That girl can’t even get her references right!”


And of course, all the other participants chatted on as though they’d never done anything but record podcasts their whole lives, after months of media training and learning the preferred and expected way to speak about yourself on a podcast. 


Now, I don’t know — they might all have social anxiety and a host of other mental health issues, and are still agonising about all they should and shouldn’t have said, the way they looked, how they came across, etc. I was depressed the next day, full of regret, simultaneously wishing I’d not gone on that stupid podcast and being disappointed in myself for not just being able to breeze through it like I imagine anyone else would have done. 


Safety in Perfection

This experience has got me thinking a bit about anxiety and perfectionism. The unreasonable, SAD part of me seems to be under the impression that she can avoid criticism if only she reaches perfectionism before sharing her creativity or some part of her personality. But the more sensible part of me is trying to suggest that by that logic, she’ll die first. What is perfection anyway? It’s such a stupid, arbitrary concept we should all flush down the nearest toilet and wash our hands of. 


It’s funny, because when I watch interviews with celebrities, be they politicians, musicians, athletes, or writers, the media-trained, expected and perfected answers and deliveries of those answers bore me to tears. They give me no reason to feel intrigued by that person or what they do, and make me wonder who they really are, behind the drone-like exterior. 


I am much more interested, and, let’s face it, impressed, by the unpolished, nervous, perfectly human responses where an obviously rehearsed reply would tell me it’s rehearsed because the speaker would otherwise not be able to speak, not because they’ve been taught that in order to succeed you must be a good little drone and keep up a peppy facade. Curveball questions throw them off completely, even when they’re not being criticised or interrogated. That’s what I want to see more of, and that’s what I desperately don’t want to do myself, hypocrite that I am. 


After a week or so of obsessing about my more or less failed podcast experience, I’m actually noticing an interesting side effect. Whereas before, I would have been highly critical of the song being played alongside my interview, I know find myself thinking that perhaps people will think:“What a weirdo,” during my interview, but once they hear my song; “She can’t talk, but she sure can sing!” The recording is far from perfect — it’s a demo and terribly mixed and unpolished — but in comparison to my stammering, dry mouthed interview devoid of eye contact and clever responses, it’s pretty damn good, if you ask me. 

For the Love of Pseudonyms

As you might have noticed, I’m not posting this blog in my own name. I was going to say it’s not because I’m embarrassed about what I’m writing, but I suppose, in a way, I’d be lying. The truth is, I am sort of embarrassed. Or frightened. Why? Good question. It’s not like I’m sharing intimate, dangerous, or secret information — except that I kind of am. 


As a part of last week’s mental health awareness week at work, I recently took part in a mental health quiz which was based around facts and statistics about mental health. One statistic that stuck was that it takes, on average, a full year for a person to open up about their mental health struggles with friends and family. My colleagues who took part seemed shocked and saddened, and I suppose it does sound shocking and sad, but my own reaction was more surprise. “Only a year?”


I was diagnosed with SAD six years ago, and had struggled with it for about five years prior to seeking help. I was first diagnosed with depression ten years ago, but had experienced my first depression eight years earlier. That’s eleven years of SAD and eighteen years of recurring depressions and low moods. I still haven’t told my family. 


Needless to say, it has become a bit of a burden. There’s a lot of secrecy involved, and while I do sometimes wish it was all out in the open already, I don’t want to start up the whole process. Which seems crazy, because The Big Secret often becomes a The Big Obstacle in that I can’t openly discuss what some of my songs are about, or why I don’t play live as much as I used to (even pre-pandemic), or why I’m not sharing everything I do on social media. 


In a way, I’d much rather be honest and say I hold back sharing my creativity or putting myself out there because I am too darn afraid of rejection, ridicule, and failure, than to pretend I’m not really that bothered about it, or blame it on lack of opportunities, time, support, or money— whatever clears me of any responsibility or agency. 


Because I do believe I would have done so much more and had so much more success and joy from this creative life if so much energy hadn’t been wasted on constantly second guessing myself, worrying, overthinking, regretting, procrastinating, doubting, fearing… It is energy-draining — not to mention time-consuming! Imagine all the time I could’ve spent practising, writing, recording, finding gigs — whatever — if I hadn’t spent so much time planning to avoid and avoiding to plan. And, on top of that, covering up everything that was difficult or downright heartbreaking; to always remember to play it cool.


BUT…


All hail the wonder of pseudonyms! 


Imagine how little I would have done in life if I had stopped myself sharing anything creative unless it had my name on it? If I couldn’t write or sing or paint unless I explained all about the anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, and darkness that sometimes fuel my expression? If I had to wait to be brutally honest, open, and vulnerable about my personal life and private thoughts before I could start a blog? I tell you, nothing would get done. 


When I was nine I wanted to be a pop star. I wanted to be in a girl band like Spice Girls (perish the thought). I’d be the leader, of course. The lead singer. The lead dancer. The lead songwriter. It was all ME, ME, ME. I wanted the music, and the fame. As I got older, I still wanted the music and the fame, though I had dropped my dream of the girl band and was aiming for a solo career that people would talk about reverently for all eternity. (Always a realist, me.) 


Now, I’m thinking I would most likely hate being famous. I am far too fond of my integrity and privacy, to the point where I get a uncomfortable if a stranger or acquaintance try to engage in harmless small talk. I want to shout: “Leave me alone!” and move into a cottage deep in a forest and only come out once a month to replenish my pantry (not an innuendo). 


Although, I would love for my music to be famous. Talk about having the cake and devouring it whole. It’s not a new idea, or anything particularly unusual, though I suppose in this day and age, where people’s lives are broadcast to the whole potential world before they’re even born, like some sort of hellish Truman Show (renamed Instagram, I believe), it does seem suspicious to opt out of fame and pursue success hidden behind a pseudonym. 


Something that shocked me more than the statistic about the opening up about mental health was when I read an article about the difficulty of making any sort of decent living from music given the royalties musicians get from streaming (shocking in itself). Streaming or recorded music is now just another form of merchandise, and one is expected to earn the bulk of one’s income through gigs and tours. In the article, one musician pointed out how not everyone can or even wants to tour. Mind-blowing!


Of course, it sounds so obvious, but it was the first time I had heard anyone allude to what I have been feeling now for a very long time: I love making music, and I love recording my music, but I don’t love playing live, and I wouldn’t want to spend my life on tour. It has always seemed like a sort of oxymoron: to want to make a living making music but not by touring and playing live. It’s the kind of impossible dream that has always made me feel like an outsider, a freak — an aberration, much in the same way as when I discovered I don’t like jamming with other musicians. 


And I know damn well why. 
  1. I am an introvert. I like my alone-time, and I crave it. When I go on tour, or even a weekend away to play one lousy gig surrounded by other people, even friends I love, I go crazy. 
  2. I am socially anxious, and I get stage fright, pre-stage fright, post-stage fright. I am all those things a musician isn’t supposed to be: shy, introverted, and I prefer to make and play music all by myself.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the occasional gig with a band, but I’m a loner. A loner and a musician — the kind of person who never understood why musicians are just supposed to love hanging out with other musicians, have endless beer-fuelled jam-sessions, beer-fuelled rehearsals, beer-fuelled recording sessions, beer-fuelled release parties, beer-fuelled gigs and tours, and beer-fuelled post-gig parties. 


So, anyway, this is my very long-winded way of saying that, for someone with an intense fear of rejection and ridicule, using a pseudonym can be a great way of staying creative and sharing that creativity with the world whilst taking some of the edge off the anxiety. Ideally, I’d be typing my full name under this blogpost, but in the meantime, I am going to give myself a gold star for effort. I’m doing the work, and hopefully the anonymity can be a stepping stone to being brave enough to say my name aloud.

And in the meantime, here’s a photo of a cow.

On the Meaninglessness of Lists

It’s raining today. The kind of relentless, heavy rain which makes you want to stay in your pyjamas all day, drink cup after cup of strong coffee until you feel a little sick, and not really do anything useful, because, well, it’s raining. 


Of course, I had different plans. I was meant to go for a 15k run, clean the house, mix a song, call a friend, make pizza, make cream cheese, write a blog post, brush my cat’s teeth, do a load of washing, attempt to sign into some social media accounts and perhaps post something, repot some plants, finish some jewellery, pick nettles and dry them to make a powder which I imagine I’ll start adding to healthy smoothies and soups, hoping a slight change in diet might help me manage my IBS.


So far, I’ve managed to start this blog post, which isn’t at all what I had planned to write. I was going to do something more ambitious, do some research, a proper outline, and so on. You know: something professional. 


I like lists. Lists keep me organised, gives me a sense of control, and I love the feeling of being able to tick something off a list. It makes me feel like I have accomplished something, even if it’s to wash up. But the downside to lists is of course that they tend to get very, very long, and I hate the feeling of ending a day or a weekend or a week seeing unticked items. It makes me feel like I have failed. 


So, as you might have guess, my Saturday plan will not pan out the way I had hoped, and yes, I do realise that it was an impossible plan to begin with, not accounting for any breaks, mishaps, or, well, rain (or period pains). And I look at the list and a tiny voice at the back of my head chimes in and whispers: “No wonder you’re anxious…” 


No wonder I’m anxious. No wonder I am sometimes in a constant state of feeling like a failure. I want to do everything at once, and, preferably, I want to do it beautifully. I want to fly through life ticking off one success after another. When I can’t, I feel like a bad person. 

Hey Now, Who Really Cares?


Today, I feel like a bad person because I have only been for one measly 4k run this week (in Tuesday’s rain — not too pleasant), whereas I had planned to go for three runs (7k, 5k + hill repeats, and 15k trail). I feel like a bad person because I haven’t worked on any creative writing apart from this blog for weeks, or months even. I feel like a bad person because I don’t play guitar every day. I feel like a bad person because I can’t be bothered with social media, because I find it boring, stressful, and superficial, and because it gives me tremendous anxiety. I feel like a bad person because I don’t cook healthy meals from scratch each and every day. I feel like a bad person because I’m in my 30s and I still have no savings, no career, no family of my own, no mortgage, no insurance, no dentist, no car, am anxious about driving, anxious about answering the phone, anxious about meeting people, anxious about my health, anxious about money, anxious about my living situation, anxious about my weight, anxious about being anxious, and so on. 

A very distant kite…


Simultaneously, I forcing myself to take a step back, breathe, and look at my unrealistic lists and adopt a more laissez-faire attitude. So what if I couldn’t go running today? I’ll go another day. So what if I have no savings? I’ve got a job now, and can start saving. So what if I have no dentist? I take care of my teeth and am not experiencing any problems that need urgent care. So what if I have no mortgage? My mum has never had a mortgage either. So what if I have no family? My grandmother was 45 when she had my mum, and also, I’m not even sure I want kids. So what if I don’t drive? I can practise. So what if I don’t always cook? I do the majority of times, and I am in good healthy anyway. So what if I don’t write creatively at the moment? My creativity comes in waves, and I sometimes spend every waking hour writing or playing music, so I’m sure taking some time off isn’t the end of the world. So what if I’m not on social media? I don’t even enjoy it! So what if I’m anxious? I manage my anxiety every day, exposing myself to challenges, taking care of myself, focusing on what’s important to me. 


I suppose all these intrusive and persistent thoughts on success and failure might have something to do with social anxiety, the need to be good, to be approved, to not be negatively judged or evaluated, to not be the odd one out, the need to always be a little better than everyone else, just to avoid being singled out in any negative sort of way. I have no problem being singled out if admired, by the way. It’s what I’ve always striven to do. It comes from having a low self-confidence, and needing others to convince me I’m good enough. I wonder if all these impossible lists is some kind of self-inflicted punishment? Because ticking items off a list doesn’t really change anything, it just means I’ve used my day doing a bunch of stuff that really matters very little, in the grand scheme of things. 


Who cares if I make my own pizza? Who cares if I hoover the floor today or next week? Who cares if I go for a run or do an hour of yoga? Who cares if I post something on Facebook? Who cares if I repot my plants? (The plants, I guess, but none of them seem to be screaming for space and fresh compost just this minute.) Why do I care? 


Well, today I won’t. I’ll do what I feel like, and throw the list in the bin. It’s hard work being good! Especially when it’s to make up for some imaginary flaw that nobody else is likely to ever perceive. 


It’s raining today. And I’m going to have myself a lazy Saturday. Time for another cup of coffee. 

Self-Indulgent Creativity

Today is a Bank Holiday and I was meant to go for a hike with some friends. But, this is England after all, so it’s chucking it down outside and the hike was postponed. Instead, I’m having a creative day of writing, playing guitar, and cooking (soup made from nettles and wild garlic I have foraged myself — hello Spring!). My cat is resting in the window, having what looks like a very mindful moment of watching a small fly walk the rim of her water bowl. Round, and round, and round… 

Secret Wild Garlic


Lately, I have been feeling bad about not writing enough, not playing enough music, not currently working towards any of my creative goals. Life has consisted mainly of exercising and working. Whenever I get into a non-creative rut, I imagine this is it, and I start mourning my former creative self which I have built an identity around since I was a child, really. And it is indeed mourning: I feel sad, empty, and lost, as if I am nobody at all if I am not creative; as if it has been a wasted effort and life; as if I have lost everything that ever made me special — and don’t we all want to stand out in some way, be exceptional, be Someone, be admired…! (Let’s come back to the dangers of this kind of feeding of the ego in another post, shall we?)


Sometimes I think this mourning comes from a perceived lack of success, and a large dose of fear (hello, Anxiety, my old friend!). It’s like: what’s the point of writing songs that no one will hear? Also, what’s the point of writing songs when there’s no guarantee everyone will love them and, consequently, me?

Destructive Daydreams

Here is my typical pattern: An idea pops into my head, carries me away, and before I’ve even put any real effort into it and done the actual hard work, I’m already imagining the triumph of successful completion, be it fame, fortune, awards, respect and admiration — just about any recognition possible. 


Again, my competitive nature wants me to not only set up goals for what I want to write and for when, but to also start dreaming of future successes from these projects. I am trying my very best to close the door on those thoughts. They have no place in these early stages of planning, and that for a number of reasons. Because not only do they trick my mind into feeling as though I’ve already accomplished something before I’ve even started, making me somehow less motivated to get going, they also rely on other people, luck and circumstance I have no control over. 

Mindful Running


The point is, whatever your reason for wanting to prove something to someone else — don’t. I would say you should set goals that rely on yourself and no one else. If what you do grabs the attention of others and they want to help you achieve results beyond completion — that’s great, but don’t make it part of your goal. There is never any guarantee anyone will like what you create, but that shouldn’t factor in when you create. Do it for yourself. (Something I did recently was criticised as “self-indulgent”, which made me quite upset, but then I thought: Hell yeah, it’s self-indulgent. I’m doing it for me!)


And, sure, the desire for success can be a great motivator for some, but if you’re anything like me, whatever success you do enjoy, it will never be enough. I have learnt that I must find joy in the thing itself — whether it’s writing, creating music, running, or making jewellery — and forget all about what might happen after completion of a project, or else I build up all kinds of big ideas and unrealistic successes, which means the act of doing and completing lose some, if not all, meaning. 


For me, the failure to complete projects seems to consist of a strange mixture of fear of both failure and success. (As an aside, kakorrhaphiaphobia is the fear of failure — and it just sets you up for failure straight away, doesn’t it?). Because in my daydreams, where I’m giving thank you speeches or interviews or whatever, I am entirely free of anxiety. Shy, yes, as is my nature, but anxious to the point of cancelling events or not even accepting invitations to participate in the first place? Never. I am articulate, thoughtful, funny, wise. In my daydreams, my anxiety seems to have shrunk dramatically as a result of some success. Which is, of course, not likely to happen in real life. Social anxiety isn’t restricted to those lacking success. 

Challenges Following Creative Output

A couple of days ago I was chosen to participate in a live event on YouTube, which I thought would entail just watching, having something I created critiqued (kindly), and me perhaps typing a couple of responses in the chat. All this is scary in and of itself, but as I’ve done it three times now I also felt quite excited about it. This did not stop my hands from actually shaking during the session, even though I was sitting in my own living room and no one could even see or hear me. The previous two times, it’s been in a closed group for Patreon members only. This time, however, it was broadcast for anyone to watch and comment on, and it was also being recorded for a podcast. Then, it was suddenly announced that as part of the podcast, we would also schedule a Zoom call to discuss the feedback. 


My boyfriend, sadist that he is, laughed and thought it was great. Which it really is. Of course it is! It’s an amazing opportunity, and I’m proud and grateful to be one of four to be given it. Simultaneously, I’m terrified. Me, on Zoom, with an artist I really admire, and three perfect strangers, which will then be aired and available for thousands to watch and listen to? My SAD mind went straight into preparation mode, thinking I need to rewatch the feedback session, make notes, think of possible things I might say, hopefully coming across as smart and articulate and perhaps a little funny, think about what to wear, how to keep my hair, where to sit when I do the call, and so on and so forth. 


So I guess I’m in for a big challenge. Talk about exposure therapy! Facing head on my fear of failure and success, for anyone to see. What have I gotten myself into now? 


My new mantra, however, is: Do it anyway. Don’t think, say yes, and remember I am only human. I am flawed, I am anxious, I am quiet, I am shy — why should that keep me from going after what I want? 


Deep breath, and jump. 

Shyness Is Fine

I never want to go back to working full time in an office or a shop.  

There — I’ve said it. Last year, when the head of my department asked how I found working from home, he seemed almost surprised when I said I prefer it to working from the office. And I think it probably has something to do with the fact that people in my department are very outgoing, social people, who seem to thrive when working in close proximity to colleagues, available for quick chats, some gossip, and some work talk. I don’t. It tires me out. I am always a little bit on edge, waiting to suddenly be forced to think quick, be witty, come up with conversation topics, raise my voice to take part, and so on. 

Don’t get me wrong: I like my colleagues. I like feeling part of the group, but I didn’t feel part of the group until we all started working from home a year ago. Then, as if by magic, I felt we had a level playing field. I could be funny, start up conversations, take part, show them who I was, what I did. Thank god for Teams chats! And it wasn’t just something I felt or imagined: on my last day, my manager said she felt they had really gotten to know me more in the past six months working from home than in the previous six months working in the office. I was told my witty remarks would be missed. 

I was witty! And people noticed! Mission accomplished. 


In case I forgot to mention: I have now gotten my old job back, six months after my temporary contract ran out and couldn’t be renewed. I work part time in my old department, and have just started part time in a different department at the same company. And how amazing was it for my self-confidence to realise that me and my work was so appreciated that not only do I keep getting called back to my old job (third time lucky?), but was offered a job by a different manager at a different department, just because he knew from rumour I was a desirable employee. 


So, yes, working from home, interacting mainly through email and chat, suits me perfectly, and it shows. I have become braver, more open, more active in discussions, and I have dared to show more of myself and my personality, my talents, and passions. I have shared music, my crafts, my running goals and achievements, and even opened up ever so slightly about my social anxiety (next on the list is sharing something I’ve written — perish the thought!). And, believe it or not, I think I have even made a few friends. I’m not saying it wouldn’t feel awkward to see them again in real life, and I may even withdraw back into shyness and silence, but at least I have been able to show them that there is more to me than a quiet observer nobody really knows anything about. 


I guess what I’m trying to say is that, despite all the setbacks this pandemic and the lockdowns have had on my struggle with social anxiety, it hasn’t been all bad. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the majority of the pandemic in a company who trusts their employees to do a good job without supervision, with the infrastructure to support remote working, and the common sense to not rush everyone back into the office at the first sign of decreased infection rates. 

There’s someone who knows how to stand out and be invisible at the same time.


And it’s interesting how my mind has shifted from constantly worrying I’m not talkative enough, not outgoing enough, not part of the group because I’m too awkward, to realising more and more that perhaps it’s less to do with my personality, and more to do with forms of communication. Because right along with the reduction of face-to-face interactions has been a reduction in anxiety and this feeling of otherness I always carry with me, and I see that, for all the differences, I’m no lesser member of the group: I have my place, my role, and now everyone knows me as that foreigner who hardly ever switches the camera on and who will write in the chat during meetings rather than try to cut through the noise and the lags. But, you know, we’re all fine with it.

They know I’m shy; I know I’m shy — so what?

The Anti-Anxiety Toolbox: First Trail Running Race Accomplished

Yesterday, I participated in my first trail running race in five years, and I loved it! The weather was perfect (overcast with some sunshine breaking through occasionally); the organisers friendly; the route scenic with a good mix of tough hills, trails, roads, grass, mud, over the moors, passing through villages, past grazing sheep and lambs. And there was cake at the end! 

Although I was a bit anxious on Friday night, and right before registering, I can happily report that I was also excited about having something to prepare for, after a whole year of pretty much not preparing for anything. Well at registration, I was reassured there was no way I’d get lost as there’d be clear arrows and marshals showing the way. The atmosphere was very welcoming and laid back (perhaps a little too laid back as there were quite a lot of people loitering around the finishing line, spoiling my sprint finish plan…), and everyone started at different times, so I never had to find myself in a big crowd of people. 

A lot of my warm up time consisted of me not being able to decide whether to run with my hydration vest or just a running belt, and I suppose that was the only time where my social anxiety really made its presence known. On the one hand, why not just wear what’s more comfortable or practical as I knew I needed to bring water and my phone for keeping time (point vest)? On the other hand, would it not look silly and overly pretentious to wear a vest for a mere 5 mile run (point belt)? Back and forth, vest on, vest off, belt on, belt off, vest on, and so on and so forth, until I noticed someone else running 5 miles wearing a vest and the choice was made. Vest it was. Screw you, SAD.

And despite my mild fear of getting lost, looking silly, coming last, spending all my energy in the beginning and having to crawl across the finishing line, I actually did all right. As I didn’t know the route, it was hard to plan the run well, but all in all, I managed the steep hills and tricky slopes, kept my focus on form and breathing, and, on crossing the finishing line, I even had quite a bit of energy left! No pains at all today, which makes me think I should have pushed myself harder… 

Being highly competitive, I’m forcing myself to pat myself on the back and say I did a good race, and, again, nothing bad happened! Nobody laughed at me, nobody said I didn’t belong there, nobody shouted at me to get out of the way, and I also wasn’t entirely ignored. I was greeted with smiles and welcomes, encouragement, and congratulations at the end. I got a medal, chocolate, cake, and a beer (this is Yorkshire, after all). 

My plan was to finish in under 54 minutes, and hopefully in the top ten. I finished in 53.47 seconds, and was number six of the ladies, only four minutes from the top three! So, actually, I did better than I had hoped for, and that’s from not knowing anything at all about the route or what to expect.

But regardless of the results, I guess I’m proud of myself for having signed up to the race, trained for it, and completed it, despite some pre-race nerves. And that’s what it felt like: nerves. Not anxiety. Just absolutely normal, everyday nerves, the kind that makes you perform better (in my experience), and not the anxiety that only hinders your effort. What a relief! I am now looking forward to the next race: 10k off road in June. Perhaps another top ten placement? 

The Anti-Anxiety Toolbox – 2021 Running Goals

For a few months now, I’ve felt myself stuck with anxiety and depression bleeding into my creative pursuits. Writing my screenplay, a novel, short stories, and writing and recording new songs, even just practising guitar is hard work. I worry that what I do is rubbish, that, consequently, I’m rubbish, and that the whole thing is a waste of time (A later blogpost will discuss being trapped in thoughts circling creativity, productivity, money, and self-worth). 

In addition, I’ve felt stuck in thoughts on how I will be able to get out of an insecure financial situation because I’m so anxious about finding work, doing interviews, starting a new job, etc. In sum, it’s been a rocky start to the year. 

So, I’ve decided to shake things up a bit and start a new project which has absolutely nothing at all to do with creativity, work, or money: I’ve rekindled my love of trail running! I’ve found that what works best for me to keep myself motivated is setting up specific goals and making a plan to succeed. Therefore, my running goals for 2021 are:

  • 5 mile run in April
  • 10k run in June
  • Half marathon in September 

Which in turn are part of my three long term running goals:

  • Half marathon in 2021 (13.1 miles)
  • Marathon in 2022 (26.2 miles)
  • Ultra marathon in 2023 (mileage undecided)

(And no, I clearly have no idea what I’ve have gotten myself into.)

This blogpost was inspired by a wonderful episode of the Wild Ginger Running podcast featuring an interview with mental health- and running champion Sally Orange, as well as my own work with social anxiety. One thing I struggle a lot with is running in public, and this for many reasons, but mainly the whole being seen, judged, and evaluated, feeling self-conscious about how I look, in particular how red my face is as I have rosacea which means my face goes deep red and hot for a myriad of reasons, including, but not limited to, drinking alcohol, being cold, feeling stressed, embarrassed, being warm, or exercising. 

So signing up to races where I will be seen by other runners and by an audience is a challenge, but one I believe is manageable. For me, I think signing up to the London Marathon and run whilst watched by thousands of people would be overwhelming. So starting with smaller races seemed a good idea (in my first race, I’ll be competing against 38 other 5 mile runners). 

As you all know, exposure is an important part of working with social anxiety, but it’s important to go slowly. I know from experience that when you push yourself too hard and expose yourself to anxiety-inducing situations too fast, the effect can often be counterproductive. For me, it has meant my journey to self-acceptance and wellbeing was more or less reversed, and it’s taken years to get back to the point of actually wanting to work with my SAD again. 

Taking My Time…

As I’m naturally a highly competitive person and tend to compare myself to others — even people on an entirely different level of skill and experience — I’m also using my running as part of a tool to put more focus on myself, my needs, desires, and capabilities, and less focus on others, or me in comparison to others. It’s so easy to look at how fast or far others run, and then put yourself down because you’re slower or can’t run as far.

For me, it’s been very beneficial to read blogs and listen to podcasts from other trail runners. It becomes clear that lots of people use trail running as a way to manage their mental health, and connect with nature in a way that’s difficult to do when you’re running on tarmac through polluted cities. (I grew up in the country, surrounded by forests and lakes, so I’m perhaps biased in the whole trail vs. road question…!)

So my goal is to finish these races and enjoy the experience, focusing on resilience and endurance rather than chasing places and beating a certain time. I want to focus on appreciating my body and how strong and able it is, whilst also practising mental resilience. This includes dropping the competitive thinking that I have always used to berate myself. It has been truly liberating. It is also a great opportunity to meet new people, practice my small talk skills, and get a feel for being part of a community again.

And it has come with the added bonus of giving me the mental energy and resolve to start this blog, keeping me creative each week. I truly believe creativity fosters creativity, so in working with this blog, I’ve also started setting up some creativity goals for this year and am actually looking forward to getting into them. (I’ll be sharing those in another post, too.)

Again, my competitive nature wants me to not only set up goals for what I want to write and for when, but to also start dreaming of future successes from these projects. I am trying my very best to close the door on those thoughts; they have no place in these early stages of planning. Not only do they trick my mind into feeling as though I’ve already accomplished something before I’ve even started, making me somehow less motivated to get going, but they also rely on other people, luck and circumstances I have no control over. 

But I digress — much like the other day when I had planned a short hill repeat run and ended up exploring a new trail over 16k and 2 and a half hours. I came home revived though, and with a found phone I could reunite with its owner after some detective work. So, several birds with one stone there: explored a lovely new trail, got more exercise than I bargained for, did a good deed, and worked on my SAD! Not bad for a lazy Sunday.

2k in.

But as I’m writing this, it’s another Sunday, and this really will be a lazy one. Yesterday, I took my new hydration vest for a 16k spin over two and a half hours, talked to a couple of handsome geese, smiled at some newborn lambs climbing a wall to get to the tastiest leaves. Oh, and I also got to admire some very large and quite awe-inspiring cows that appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the footpath… Today is my rest day: a slow stroll to pet some horses, gentle yoga, a foot massage (by a machine, not a person, as I hate people touching my feet), a bath, some blogging, and baking. Just because I deserve it. 

New lazy Sunday friend.

So, what’s part of your anti-anxiety toolbox? And have you set any SAD goals or are planning to? Perhaps you’ve even achieved some of them already? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

The Three Stages of Lockdown: When Social Distancing Meets Social Anxiety

It feels almost impossible not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic in a blog dedicated to social anxiety disorder in 2021. After a year of social distancing, restrictions, surrounded by sickness and death, and working from home or being unemployed, I’m somewhat amused, or amazed, or something in between, that whilst there has been a lot written and talked about the negative impact on our mental health in mainstream media, there has been very little mention of specific struggles. Personally, I’m of course thinking in terms of SAD. 

Yes, the rise in loneliness, isolation, stress, and the negative impact the lack of social activities has had on people have been quite frequently discussed, but apart from a previously discussed The Guardian article on how to deal with post-lockdown anxiety, I haven’t really come across anything dealing particularly with SAD. 

Seeing as SAD is a fairly often misunderstood diagnosis, if it is even talked about at all, I’d welcome a more detailed and specific look at SAD in the news. For a lot of people, it seems the differences between shyness, introversion, moderate social anxiety, and social anxiety disorder is unclear. 

For my own part, I was always shy in certain social situations, which means I felt self-conscious and nervous, perhaps held back by my discomfort. Other times, I was not at all shy. I have always been an introvert, which means social situations tire me out, regardless of whether I feel shy, anxious, or am having a delightful time. I need a lot of time alone, to recharge, relax, and I generally enjoy being alone. Most of my hobbies are solitary activities (making music, writing, running, doing yoga, painting, reading, etc.). 

Over the years, shyness has lead to moderate social anxiety, which, untreated and ignored, has in turn lead to my diagnosis of generalised social anxiety disorder, which means I often experience panic attacks, severe anxiety, and physical symptoms such as trembling and shaking, sweating, inability to maintain eye contact, breathing difficulties, palpitations, dizziness, difficulty thinking clearly, crying, and so on. 

Whilst it is perfectly normal to feel anxious in some situations, like at job interviews, you could say it isn’t perfectly normal to feel so anxious you avoid even applying for jobs because of the intense fear of having to do an interview, let alone start a new job. 

And whilst it might be perfectly normal to feel a little nervous calling your doctor to make an appointment, or attend a doctor’s appointment, worrying about making the call for days or weeks beforehand — or avoid making the call at all — and then have a panic attack whilst you’re in the waiting room, might be a sign something isn’t quite right.

There is an enormous difference between preferring to be by yourself and being so afraid of being judged and evaluated you end up isolating yourself. 

There is an enormous difference between postponing important phone calls because you’re too busy, lazy, distracted, or unbothered and avoiding them because the thought of picking up the phone makes you physically ill. 

There is an enormous difference of avoiding avoidable, voluntary situations because you don’t actually need or want to challenge yourself and avoiding everyday, essential situations out of fear, potentially leading to ill health, unemployment, isolation, poverty, and depression. 

Whilst the true prevalence of social anxiety disorder is perhaps a little tricky to evaluate, since many people avoid seeking help and many cultural factors may also play a part, there is some research which suggests a clear correlation between social anxiety disorder and a myriad of other mental health issues such as depression, substance abuse, generalised anxiety disorder, and personality disorders.

The Three Stages of Lockdown

Because this blog is primarily a way for me to a) enlighten non-SAD sufferers, b) hopefully create a space where other SAD people can find a friend, and also c) share my own story, I will summarise my own SAD pandemic year thus: 

  1. Entering Lockdown = Relief!
  2. Enduring Lockdown = Increased Anxiety…
  3. Exiting Lockdown = Full Panic Mode.

Upon entering lockdown, a number of positive changes happened for me. First, I began working from home. This meant no more open plan office, no more commuting on busy buses, no more logging in to my own personal phone anxiously waiting for it to ring whilst I felt scrutinised by everyone around me. I could choose when and how to interact with my colleagues and customers. I could choose to keep my camera and mic off during meetings. No one required me to make phone calls using my private cellphone. I could eat my lunch whenever, however, and nobody was watching me. I could use the toilet whenever I needed and never feel anxious because I was constipated or had diarrhoea — some might say this last one is weird, but the combination of irritable bowel syndrome and social anxiety disorder can be pretty awful for a lot of reason. (Stress and anxiety worsens IBS, and IBS worsens SAD, which worsen IBS, and so on and so forth.) Some people might feel perfectly happy stinking up a public bathroom, but for others, it is tremendously anxiety inducing. Just saying. 

The drop in anxiety and stress levels following my switch to working from home was liberating. I had more time for exercise. I had more time for my creative pursuits, being able to spend my lunch hours painting or recording, and closing my laptop at precisely 4 p.m. and be hard at writing five minutes later. 

This isn’t to say the pandemic didn’t hit me negatively as well. My partner was furloughed, which meant a reduction in income, not to mention the two of us being shut up in a small one bedroom house with no garden more or less 24/7… I have been anxious about catching Covid, anxious about my partner, friends, and family catching Covid, anxious about losing my job and my income, anxious even about my cat’s wellbeing, and I lost a loved one to Covid fairly early on. Being in a different country and with no way of going back home, I missed the funeral, I missed clearing out their house, I missed helping out with the house sale, not to mention supporting my family through it all. At Christmas, I lost another loved one to the same illness, and the cycle was repeated. 

As the year dragged on, I eventually did lose my job, and whilst I was financially fine to begin with, I probably don’t have to tell you how being unemployed in the midst of a pandemic is less than ideal. The lack of social interactions also meant that not only did I not see my friends or family at all, with the odd exception of the occasional walk with one friend living nearby, but I also had no way of working with my social anxiety. 

The relief of being able to be in my house, far from social situations and the anxiety they cause, soon turned into despair at how my wellbeing would ever improve. A cornerstone in working with social anxiety is to take small, manageable but regular steps to expose yourself to the things that cause you to feel anxious, so you can gradually learn that the worry that something awful will happen is worse than the actual situation: We often blow things out of proportion, seeing disaster where there might be only slight awkwardness, or perhaps nothing at all. 

Likewise, when you avoid anxiety-inducing situations, your anxiety will gradually increase and spread, as it has done for me through the years. This means that situations that may have started out as uncomfortable or awkward have now turned into personal nightmares, and the number of situations causing me anxiety have gone from specific (being on stage, public speaking, starting a new job or school) to generalised (the above, plus making and taking phone calls, visiting shops, eating in public, using public bathrooms — or friends’ bathrooms — going to parties, making small talk, answering the door when I’m not expecting someone, maintaining eye contact, and so on). 

Keeping Busy

However, I consider myself temporarily lucky. I’ve just started a part time, temporary contract at my old job, which means if I get another, entirely new job after this, I won’t be going from 0 to 100 overnight. I can slowly get used to socialising with people, albeit virtually, as I apply for other positions and take my gradual, regular baby steps. I’ve signed up for running races, increasing my effort from 5 to 13.1 miles in the next five months. I’m writing this blog. I make a point of calling a friend once a week. I push myself to answer the phone when it rings. I push myself to make phone calls when I have to. What else can I do?

The option would be to not do anything. To isolate myself. But, actually, I can’t. The added stress and anxiety of watching myself throw my life away, repeatedly letting opportunities for growth, happiness, and adventure pass me by, not to mention the financial struggle it entails, keeps me motivated. But it is hard, make no mistake. I’m now on antidepressants and that, coupled with my new exercise routine, coupled with the return of spring, makes all the difference. 

So, anyone else out there who has struggled with social anxiety during lockdowns? How have you coped? How do you feel about the gradual return to “normal”? Or have you struggled with any other mental health issues? Let’s open up the discussion about SAD and mental health! 

LinkedIn and a Flurry of Negative Emotions

The word of the day is Anxiety. Anxiety brought on by the mere thought of getting out there, making something of myself, utilising my strengths, letting my personality shine through. 

This week, I started setting up a LinkedIn profile, because every article and blogpost on how to make the most of your search for employment suggests you must have a LinkedIn profile — a sort of public CV to broadcast your achievements and employability. I figured I would give it an honest chance: what harm could come of it?

So I start adding my recent employment history, taking care not to add any specific descriptions other than company, job title, and the time I worked there, because if my former employers should read it, they might think I’m exaggerating my importance and skills. I add some education history, choosing only the most recent, longest courses, which means discarding several years worth of shorter, freestanding courses that make up the bulk of my higher education. I pick some skills, feeling increasingly unsure about the whole endeavour. I add the languages I speak, thinking long and hard about whether I should add French, which I have studied for years, but never felt confident enough to actually utilise. It suggests adding a photo, but I ignore it for now. 

I keep on tentatively building my professional profile, feeling impostor syndrome and my own innate inadequacies wash over me as I scroll through the list of people I may know: Editorial Assistants, Commissioning Editors, Creative Heads, Literary Agents, Publishers, Managers of all kinds, PhDs, freelancers, writers, successful people with titles that sound impressive, smiling faces, and nothing but positivity and professionalism. I see friends and old colleagues who have risen through the ranks, been promoted, moved on to new companies, new titles, greater challenges — many of them in the middle of a pandemic where I find myself unemployed and unable to get even a job as a picker packer. 

I keep scrolling, clicking “Connect” under the names of people I suspect will approve my request because I’ve had a decent working relationship with them. Each time, I feel more of an outsider. I find myself wondering where the hell I fit in. My greatest achievement was getting my Bachelor’s degree five years ago, and once I had finished my last exam, even that didn’t feel much of an accomplishment. 

The knot in my stomach tightens; my jaws are clenched and my shoulders and ears are just about level. I try to meditate, to allow myself ten minutes of not thinking or worrying or planning or ruminating, but it only seems to highlight the fact that I can’t take deep breaths. I hug my cat who purrs loudly but almost instantly starts a rigorous wash — I try not to take it personally. 

I feel disappointed in myself. Angry. Annoyed. I wish I had the courage to change my LinkedIn title from the anonymous “English Graduate” to “Socially Anxious English Graduate”, just to feel congruent. But I get the feeling that on LinkedIn and in wider society, the mental health issues we face should ideally be hidden away until we have garnered enough professional achievements that our disorders and instabilities have become a testament to our resilience — a triumph, a way for us to say: Hey, look how far I’ve come in spite of my mental health. Until then, our depressions, disorders, and anxieties should be tucked away out of sight because why should anyone give us a break when there is the risk of failure or need for additional, sometimes extensive, support and encouragement? 

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

I find a childhood friend’s profile. She has put “highly sensitive” in the description of herself, and I admire her for it. But then I see her extensive employment history with the word “manager” popping up every three lines, and I think to myself: she has earned the right to put “highly sensitive” there. I haven’t earned my “highly sensitive” or my “socially anxious”. I’m not even sure I’ve earned the “English graduate” title. And my skills? Writing, editing, proofreading, customer service, time management, organisational skills, English? Is my English good enough? I’m not a native speaker, so that surely puts me at a severe disadvantage. 

Stop. 

I put my phone away and decide to do what I do best: write about it. Write about myself, you might say. I let the rational part of my brain take over and tell me that I am by no means the only person to feel this way. It’s likely I’m not the only person in my circle of friends or ex-colleagues who feels this way. In fact, I know I’m not. I can name a dozen people who have either been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder, depression, burnouts, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, addictions, ADHD, psychosis, postpartum depression, Aspergers, and so on. I can name a dozen others who have struggled with their mental health repeatedly or occasionally, who are still struggling or who have overcome their struggles; some who couldn’t. Many show no outward signs whatsoever and you wouldn’t think they had any problems at all. I can name many more who may not have struggled themselves, but who have witnessed loved ones struggle and several who have lost loved ones too. 

So why I am sitting here, fretting over what is essentially another social media site where we’re meant to broadcast and highlight our successes whilst hiding our failures and insecurities? Why do I feel like a liar when I add “literary criticism” or “academic writing” to my list of skills, when I have five years of university studies, a BA in English, and almost exclusively As to back up this claim? Why should I give myself a stomach ulcer just because other people have fancy titles and years of uninterrupted work progression to put on their CVs? 

My route is different. My life is different. I may not have an impressive CV to get a high paid status job anytime soon, but then that has never been my ambition either. I don’t want to be a manager or a leader. I don’t want to climb a corporate ladder. I don’t care if I become a millionaire. I want to be a writer. I want to be a musician. I want to paint. I want to grow a vegetable garden. I want to go horseback riding and kayaking and hiking and skiing. I want to earn a Masters in English Literature, just because I know I could do it. I want to run a marathon. I want to paint my walls green and yellow and blue, and I want to own cats and dogs and maybe a couple of goats. I want to live my life the way I want to, without being constantly held back by my irrational fears and insecurities. I want to be honest and congruent and not ashamed. I want to thrive. I want to be me.

So, I’ll start by ignoring everyone else’s titles on LinkedIn. I’ll add a photo, but I won’t agonise over my diverse CV lacking in direction. I am versatile. I am creative. I am sensitive. I am intelligent. I am independent. I am socially anxious — take it or leave it.