Day 4 - Transition Work
Today’s transition activities are designed to get you thinking about your attitude and stopping negative activity: it’s an easy thinking habit to get in to, but also one that you can change! *
Some of these ideas are based on the psychologist Albert Ellis. He looked at irrational and negative thinking experienced by people in times of stress. He particularly looked at types of thoughts that people experience when things go badly. He called this “crooked thinking”.
His worked applied to students in stressful situations – see if you have experienced these kinds of thoughts when things go wrong:
“not fair thinking”: “I don’t deserve this treatment. Things shouldn’t be like this.”
Catastrophe thinking: “If this goes wrong, it’ll be a total nightmare.”
Stopper thinking: “I’m useless. I can’t do this. I’m bound to screw up.”
Illogical thinking: “If this bad thing happens, this one will surely follow.”
Blaming things: “It’s his fault. It’s everyone’s fault except me.”
Overgeneralising: “I never get the breaks. This always happened to me. Everything is going wrong in my life.”
Ellis argued that the first steps was for the individual to recognise when they were slipping into negative thinking. Once they could do that, his suggestion was “reframing the thought positively”.
Not fair thinking becomes: “I did what I could. It’s a setback but I can handle it.”
Catastrophe thinking becomes: “I’m going to perform well.”
Stopped thinking becomes: “I’m learning. I’m getting better each time I hit a challenge like this.”
Illogical thinking becomes: “There’s no direct connection between this and that. Tomorrow’s another day.
Blaming becomes: “It’s happened now. It doesn’t matter whose fault it was. The important thing is to learn from it and move on.
Over generalising becomes: “There are a few problems. Everyone has tough times and I’m no exception. But I’m strong enough.
Your first task for today is to take these statements and see how you can reframe them into something more positive;
“I’ve never been good at exams.”
“Stuff like this always happens to me.”
If my report is bad my mum and dad are going to hate me.”
I’m only going to fail, so what’s the point in trying?”
The teacher doesn’t like me”
If I fail this mock it means the whole term has been a disaster.”
*From The A Level Mindset, Oakes and Griffin, Crown House Publishing 2018
Linked to these ideas your second task is to read this Guardian article from its Psychology section:
Living in our isolation bubbles can bring great rewards
How I learned about the pleasures of withdrawing from life and living within myself
Sun 19 Apr 2020 09.30 BSTLast modified on Tue 21 Apr 2020 09.24 BS
‘I find buttons to sew on and the result is always satisfying.’ Illustration: Eva Bee/The Observer
The first thing I do each morning is open the back door and sniff the air. It contains a surprising amount of information. Recently, it has become a little warmer. It still has a bite, but it lacks the viscosity it had in the coldest months. Now, it carries the scent of leaves and flowers, of turned earth. It is suddenly full of birdsong.
I’ve spent my whole life falling in and out of isolation – and this is one of the tricks I’ve learned. Living as an undiagnosed autistic woman until I was nearly 40, I’ve regularly suffered mental and physical crashes that drag me outside of life for a while. By trying to be like everyone else, I’ve pushed myself too far, too often.
Every three years, give or take – and I’m not convinced I’ve broken the cycle yet – anxiety has engulfed me, or I’ve become so exhausted that my body has gone on strike. Whatever the cause, the outside world recedes for a season.
I’ve lived through periods of continuous panic, when the machinations of my own mind have stood in the way of doing anything of much significance. But there are minor gestures I can make, which take little effort and give me something pleasurable. Sniffing the air is just one of them. I can find buttons to sew on, for example, and the result is always satisfying. I can usually find something to pickle, and then to give away.
At the moment, I’m flowing my nervous energies into growing things. Every day, I water my plants (the ones that want watering – I’m learning to neglect my cactus). Geraniums, for some reason, are particularly rewarding on this front. They seem to offer an endless cycle of renewal that demands my assistance. Every few days, the one on my windowsill produces a desiccated flower or a yellow leaf that I can ease off the stem and feel like I’m carrying out an act of nurture. It’s a strange kind of harvest, but it pleases me. I am given the gift of making things tidy again.
These times out of life have an emotional quality all of their own, a heady mix of intensity and drift. My attention is entirely unmoored. Right now, I have boundless capacity for reading newspaper websites, for assessing the contents of my larder and tidying my house, but an utter aversion to the book I’m supposed to be writing. I am hypervigilant, driven towards the practicalities of sustaining life. Everything else seems flimsy in comparison.
These confined days are a heady mix of intensity and drift
In these moments, I think of the author Jean Rhys, whose magnetic attraction to tumult found her living above a pub in Maidstone in 1951. Her husband, Max, was in the nearby prison for larceny, and Jean had rolled from one form of trouble to another for so long that it seemed like she wouldn’t recognise peace if she stumbled over it. By now, she was a known drunk and a fighter, with a spell in Holloway behind her.
While lodging in Maidstone to be close to Max, Jean’s world shrank – and it seemed to comfort her. Her attention shifted to an appreciation of her simple surroundings. She admired the row of black elephants on the mantelpiece, the plate of red apples on the table and the flowers that her landlady brought to her room. “So you see, what more can I want?” she said. For the first time in years, she stopped drinking (although she was “saving up for a real debauch some time”). “I go about in a sort of dream, I suppose,” she wrote.
I recognise that dream state well: the shifted priorities, the uncanny calm amid chaos, and the way that the minutiae become unexpectedly luminous. It was here that Rhys finally began to write the story she had yearned to tell about the first Mrs Rochester, the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre. It was a long time since she had been able to write at all. Her early literary promise seemed to have dissolved. But here, in the most straightened of circumstances, she was able to find a new perspective, and, most of all, she had time.
It’s tempting to claim that this period in exile gave birth to her enduring classic, The Wide Sargasso Sea. But that would be a gross overstatement: Rhys signed a contract for the book six years later and only delivered the manuscript nine years after that. Her masterpiece was 15 years away from that little room with its flowers and elephants, and there was certainly more tumult to come. But for all its trauma, Rhys’s time in Maidstone was something of a relief. The worst had happened. Everything stopped for a while. And in that space, she could think differently.
Not all of us find peace in the times when life stands still, though. Isolation can leave us pacing like a caged tiger, measuring the dimensions of the rooms that contain us. These are often moments when the ego cries out, when we feel sidelined or ignored. This moment of mass confinement sees many of us grappling with a sudden sense of irrelevance, of being restrained from succeeding. We are urged to think of the bigger picture, and we do, but that does nothing to soothe the sense that our life’s work – the sum total of our ambition – is now considered petty.
Isolation is not just time alone. It’s also a personal U-turn, a seismic shift in identity that undermines our very sense of self. Being busy – being part of the brisk congress of daily life – is our code for being important, needed, wanted.
Being busy makes us skim over life like a stone on still water
In less interesting times, we will meet acquaintances on the street and tell each other how busy we are, what a rush we’re in, how fast life is. In fallow periods, time opens up, and we read it as an insult. The outside world does not require us. We are surplus stock, just another human body. The shame of it hangs over us, an unspeakable thing. But there is unpicking to be done here, because the pace at which we live is so often destructive. Being busy makes us skim over life like a stone on still water. In quieter times, we can feel the presence of all the things we miss in our hurry. We begin to notice the cobwebs that have formed in forgotten corners, the gardens that are overrun with weeds.
After I left my academic job two years ago, I realised that my sense of importance was only relevant in that very specific microcosm, and that the extra financial rewards of a salaried job were mostly squandered on fuelling my headlong pursuit of work itself. The takeaways and expensive groceries; the costly services that preserved my time. I was a whole industry of my own, a republic formed to make me believe I was important.
There is pleasure not just in small things, but in being small. When my health failed and it all fell away, I was relieved to drop the illusion. That doesn’t mean it was easy. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t painful and full of paranoia and regret.
It felt like that moment of waking and watching a dream recede, incrementally remembering what is real and what is not. I had believed that I was the pin holding everything together, but it turned out that I wasn’t. To know that at the time was agony. To know it now is a liberation. I’m not that important in the scheme of things. That leaves me free to walk away from things that do more harm than good.
Often we resist change for so long that everything has to collapse before we can welcome it in. But that’s not to say that crises – and certainly not pandemics – are some kind of divine intervention to make us mend our ways. Change comes because we live within a system governed by entropy. Change comes because our sense of control is an illusion.
As writer and philosopher Alan Watts says, we cannot be happy until we find a way to accept that our life is riddled with insecurity. For as long as we want it to be fair, we suffer. Change invites us to surrender. And if we refuse, it carries on regardless.
My standard response to a crisis like this is to burn shoe leather. If I can walk until I’m exhausted, I can usually wear out the anxious part of my brain, too. This time around, I’m not allowed even that luxury. I’m embracing change yet again, pounding on my exercise bike in front of the TV, following ridiculous workout videos on YouTube, dancing to old records. I’m not enjoying these things exactly, but they park my sense of dislocation for a while. Meanwhile, I’m waiting to see what the change will bring me.
Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by Katherine May (Rider, £14.99). Buy a copy for £12.59 at guardianbookshop.com