I’ve been daring myself to do something new and a bit scary of late. It was long overdue, and you might wonder what on earth I’m talking about. I’ve been saying “no”. No to helping. No to social occasions. No to extra work. No for good reasons. No for no reason at all. Because something, somewhere had to give.
The example I was set in childhood was phenomenal. My parents had the most amazing work ethic. They made a huge a contribution to the community we lived in. They ran swimming lessons at our village pool, helped at church fetes and PTA (Parent Teacher Association) fundraisers. My mum taught Sunday school and made hundreds of costumes each year for the local youth theatre. My dad coached cricket and was secretary of the boys’ club. They always strove to leave a place in better shape than they found it in. All this was in addition to bringing up my younger sister and I – and running a textile business that at times employed more than 150 people. Extraordinary and exhausting.
In my own adulthood, I took on similar things. I helped set up and run a charity that managed a community pre-school when my own children were toddlers, while I was putting in nightshifts for BBC News and my husband was away a lot with work.
There’s no doubt it feels good to help. To do something for someone other than yourself. There’s even evidence that acts of kindness or service for others can combat depression or low mood. But there’s a limit.
It got to the point where my diary was so full that I began each morning feeling defeated by what the day had in store. I’d wake up, think about what lay ahead, try to overcome the mounting anxiety about how I could possibly tick everything off my mental checklist, hold my breath and plough on, often with little joy. My family would most likely tell you that my plate was frequently too full, that I was sometimes distracted, and looking back just to the recent past, I was struggling.
On my current reading list is The Super-Helper Syndrome. It’s the latest book by a chartered psychologist I know, Jess Baker, co-written with Rod Vincent. It’s about people who are “better at helping others than they are at looking after themselves.” The cover blurb says super-helpers “are the backbone of the caring professions, giving strength to our schools, clinics, care homes and hospitals. But you will also find them in offices, gyms, community groups and charities – everywhere you look. There’s usually one in every family.” It offers advice on changing ingrained habits and looks at what drives those who feel compelled to help even when it’s counter to their own interests. I suspect I will have to steel myself to read some of its conclusions.
I’m not usually a great one for self-help books. I prefer to find my own way through a problem, by sounding it out with trusted friends. But while promoting their book, Jess and Vincent shared advice I would have found useful as I staggered around under the weight of too many meetings and projects: being assertive and creating boundaries.
As a presenter of live news programmes, few people would accuse of me of lacking confidence, but it always felt selfish to decline making the bonfire night mulled wine, being first in the queue to organise the tombola and being everyone’s taxi service.
Kindness became a tyranny. I envied those who were able to pick and choose when they helped. When I was feeling especially beleaguered, I would think of this line from the Lebanese Canadian poet Nawja Zebian: “These mountains you are, carrying you were only supposed to climb.”
So, I challenged myself to stage minor acts of rebellion and say that tiny word: “no”. It made me squirm, but it was a relief not to see tasks (chores) piling up. Next, I had to deal with the overwhelming urge to explain why. An acquaintance told me she would politely but simply say: “Sorry, that doesn’t work for me.” I was surprised to find it was accepted at face value. No elaboration required.
Then there’s preventing mission creep: being frank but enthusiastic about what you can handle and nothing more. Manage expectations – by all means, take that call from someone who needs advice but be clear about how long you’ve got and be disciplined in drawing the conversation to a close.
I’m not claiming to have achieved the perfect balance of busyness yet. I am still prone to over-committing, but at least I now recognise the signs (of being far too stretched for comfort) more quickly. (My calendar filling up with pencilled-in appointments is the best visual giveaway…)
It’s a warning sign to ease up that I no longer ignore. Now, when I do say yes to a request for help, or offer to step in, it’s because I really want to be involved and have the capacity to give my best. And, at the risk of sounding selfish (there I go again…), life is more enjoyable for it.
This week I have been…
Contemplating…multiverse theory. I can highly recommend the play Constellations by Nick Payne that I saw very recently. First staged at the Royal Court in 2012, this two-hander brings together love, beekeeping – and quantum mechanics. It examines the infinite possibilities of how a relationship can turn out.
My trip to the theatre could also have gone more than one way. There were other people in our seats. I had booked for the matinee in error. Thankfully there were two no-shows, so we weren’t shown the door. You can see a production of Constellations at the Ayckbourn Theatre in Hertford Heath on 30 March – if you manage to reserve the right tickets…
Beginning… the Couch-to-5k programme for the umpteenth time. As a teenager I was a better sprinter and jumper (into a sandpit and “Fosbury flopping” over a bar) than I was a middle-distance runner.
I’d look a bit daft these days trying to go at full pelt down the road or launching myself horizontally or vertically in the back garden. So, intervals of walking and jogging it is. I’m put to shame by my friend and colleague, Karin Giannone. She’s done more than 300 Park Runs, as she seeks them out wherever she is in the world on a Saturday morning. I’ve said when I’m up to 30 minutes I will take her to my local event. Nothing like a promise to concentrate the mind!
Accepting… an invitation. I’ve written here before about the American journalist, Nellie Bly, who was my specialist subject when I won my edition of Celebrity Mastermind. Through my interest in Nellie, who pioneered investigative reporting in the 1800s, I’ve had the good fortune to get to know other women who have written about her.
Louisa Treger’s book, Madwoman, is based on Nellie’s assignment where she had herself admitted (with no escape plan) to a mental hospital in New York to expose how cruelly patients were treated. Louisa asked me to interview her to mark the publication of the paperback edition. Join us at Waterstones Kensington on 30 March for some fascinating insights.