Among all the cheesy memes and supposedly inspirational quotes that populate social media sites, there’s an Instagram post I came across that’s had a profound effect on me. It’s an eight-second reel of a little girl in a garden shrieking with discomfort because she’s getting hit in the head by a jet of icy water. She thinks another child is firing a water pistol at her. She thinks she can’t get away from it. Then an urgent voice off-camera says, “Emma, you’re holding the hose.”
This tiny film has been shared tens of thousands of times including by an account called “@bemarvelus.” It suggests ways to help us rewire our brains to bolster resilience. It uses the clip to point out that, in this moment, poor Emma is “her own worst enemy”.
The video prompted me to think about some of my self-sabotaging habits and how much of a favour I’d be doing myself if I followed the advice of @bemarvelus more often and “took the reins” of my own wellbeing and coping skills.
I wrote in this column a few months ago about learning to say no to seemingly endless commitments to introduce some balance in my life and stop feeling overwhelmed. It also occurred to me that not taking on so much goes hand in hand with being able to ask for help or at least graciously accepting it when it’s offered. And in this respect, Je suis Emma. I am the problem. I plough on, beset by tasks that are simply too big for one person to complete.
It’s puzzled me why I am like this because I work in an industry where large groups of people supporting each other are essential. TV programmes do not get to air without the co-operation of graphics designers, electricians, sound engineers, producers, directors, lighting specialists and myriad other craft skills. From the many projects I’ve been involved in like school fundraising, or setting up and running a small charity, I know the benefits of teamwork. That collective effort builds communities and fosters friendships.
And yet, I’m still prone to being too self-reliant for comfort. There’s a lot to be said for being capable and independent but life’s not about having to muddle through alone.
A few years ago, a coach on a training course handed the delegates bowls of pebbles and asked us to arrange them on the floor to illustrate the responsibilities we had. I protested that I’d prefer to articulate my experience with words, but she persisted with the rocks. I held the dish in my lap and suddenly felt defeated. She asked me what was wrong, and I plaintively explained that the stones weren’t big enough; that I needed a boulder to show what I was struggling to carry by myself. I don’t think it’s the reply she was expecting but it was a powerful moment, for me at least: a simple exercise that forced me to confront my limits.
The trainer quite reasonably enquired how I could make the boulder more manageable, and I realised I didn’t have the language to effectively call on people (who, in fact, were partly responsible for some of that weight) for support in a timely manner. To be fair to those people, they may not have clocked that they needed to step in.
I’d been aware of my resistance to asking for help, at least subconsciously, for some time, but I didn’t address it, so nothing changed. “If you do what you did, you’ll get what you got,” etc, etc. Annoying but inarguable…
When you do decide to delve into why you are the way you are, it can be humiliating and unedifying. I’ve had to admit that when I ask for help, I feel inept and burdensome, which is ridiculous because I never think that of anyone else when they ask for help. If I tune in to how I react when offered help, I automatically say, “No, really, it’s fine, I can manage.” It’s such a knee-jerk response that I don’t allow myself to consider whether I need a hand.
Psychologists say there’s evidence helping others can benefit our own wellbeing. It can reduce stress as well as improve mood, self-esteem, and happiness, according to the charity, the Mental Health Foundation. Generosity with no strings attached feels good. I can attest to this.
So, I’ve begun reminding myself that when I repeatedly turn down help, I’m denying others the satisfaction of making a difference. If I keep pushing help away, people in turn start to feel less able to ask me for help. Taken to an extreme but logical conclusion, that would create an impasse where no-one would ever feel they could ask anyone else for help and then where we would be!
It might seem a little convoluted, but this is how I’ve been trying to reframe a predicament I have wrestled with. It’s working. Healthier habits are forming. When I slip back into my old ways, I will try to remember Emma and put down my (metaphorical) hosepipe as she eventually (and literally) did.
This week I have been…
Waving… at strangers. Now the weather is drier and brighter, I’ve been driving my 1967 MGB GT a bit more often. I talked myself out of buying her several times as it seemed indulgent but finally took the plunge last Autumn and haven’t regretted it once.
Her name is Cynthia. She’s cream with red leather seats and red carpet: an understated head-turner. She’s also pretty noisy, so you’re likely to hear her before you see her. There’s something about her that brings out the best in people.
Other motorists more readily slow down and give way. Pedestrians point and grin and wave frantically. So, it strikes me that the antidote to road rage is…a classic car.
Grappling… with weeds. Each year, my lawn seems to consist of more of daisies, dandelions, and dock leaves than blades of grass. I borrow my neighbour’s scarifier every Spring but removing the moss just seems to make way for more clover and crowfoot.
But this Summer, I’m armed with a box of feed-and-weed, the mower is primed, my resolve is stiffened. I shall approach the task as a monk would raking gravel in a zen garden; bringing order to a wandering mind, the process more important than the result. And if I still can’t tame my plot, I can step away from the strimmer and pretend a wildflower meadow was what I intended all along….
Attending... lots of leaving dos. Change is hard, especially when people you’ve worked with for decades decide it’s time to take redundancy or retire. Among them is the woman who’s presided with precision and patience over the BBC TV newsreaders’ rotas for about 15 years.
We took Sharon for lunch in Fitzrovia to reminisce and thank her, not quite believing she’s stepping away from her scheduling spreadsheets. Keeping track of rosters when presenters get deployed on assignments at short notice or need emergency leave must be like spinning plates, while juggling jelly and herding cats.
And typical of so many of our behind-the-scenes colleagues, Sharon did it with good grace, warmth, and humour. We will miss her.