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Ask The Expert

Relate NI run a regular relationship advice column in the Belfast Telegraph Weekender Magazine. Each week Relate NI Therapist Louanne responds to letters from readers who are seeking advice for various different types of relationships and issues. Below are four recent letters which dealt with helping your children with self-esteem issues, being confident in the workplace and comparing your relationships or your experiences from lockdown to others– as well as Louannes responses.

You can submit a letter for the column by emailing askweekend@belfasttelegraph.co.uk. Please note, all of the names of the people below have been altered to protect the identity of the letter writers. 

For more information on how Relate NI can support you visit https://www.relateni.org/our_services

 

Hi Louanne

Would you have any advice for a mother of a teenage daughter? My 14-year-old is wonderful (I’m biased!), but she’s got low self-confidence. She has a good group of friends which is great but being a shy child has made her an even shyer teenager. I don’t want to interrupt her conversations with friends, but I’ve heard a few things like ‘I’m not as pretty as her’ and my heart sinks. I want to encourage her that she’s great, and while she is pretty, it’s not everything that matters. I also don’t want to embarrass or upset her, but it’s too important to ignore.

Clare, Co Tyrone

 

Hello Clare,

Thank you for your letter about your daughter.  You’re right – she sounds wonderful!  Being 14 years old is an exciting time in a person’s life – they are not a child, but they are not yet an adult either.  Being in this place of change and transition is not very comfortable at times – there are so many emotional and physical and cognitive developments taking place it is hard to know what is going on.  In the middle of all these changes the demands of school and exams are thrown in for good measure.  Relationships are changing as well.  Friendships become increasingly important while the connection with parents and siblings might be reducing slightly.

Your daughter sounds very much loved – she has a mother who is paying attention, noticing how your daughter talks about herself to others, paying attention to the characteristics of the child as they emerge into the qualities of the young person.   Your daughter also has a mother who does not want to intrude into her private conversations or to cause her embarrassment with her friends but also a mother who hopes to model helpful emotional awareness with a healthy sense of self.

As well as having a caring, thoughtful mother you mention that your daughter has a good group of friends.  Positive, healthy, helpful friendships are so important at all stages in our lives and especially so at this time as your daughter is working out what it means to be her.  She will recognise herself in her friends, she will see that they often share her hopes and her fears, her dreams and her anxieties and this will support her in a sense of community as well as in a sense of herself.

These friendships will support your daughter in navigating life’s experiences with the benefit of the foundation that you have given her.  It won’t all be plain sailing – there will be fall outs, disappointments, hurt along the way.  That can be one of the hardest things to witness as a parent – our child suffering or feeling sad.  However, important life experiences help your daughter to develop her bounce-back-ability.  While it is almost irresistible to step in and ‘sort it all out’ these experiences are what develop a strong sense of self, an awareness that mistakes happen, people can let us down and still life goes on.  You are there for support, but you can’t live these experiences for her.

  

Dear Louanne

I can’t help but feel jealous about my friends who seem to have everything sorted in life. They’re married, most have children, and seem to have the perfect lives – or at least, more perfect than me. I know not everything looks the same as you think, but I’m envious of how they have a family unit, and I don’t. My friends say someone will come along if I’m open to meeting them, but I don’t know how to open up! I haven’t been in a relationship for a long time, but I do want to meet someone now and have that togetherness that my friends have.

Alison, Co Antrim

 

Hello Alison,

I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling out of sync with your friendship group.  They all seem to be at a similar life stage, in couple relationships, creating families together & this has not yet happened for you.

For many people the desire to be in love is very powerful. Love comes in different forms & romantic love is often a very meaningful experience.  Many people have an innate longing to be part of a couple relationship or series of relationships.  While this need for connection with another seems instinctive & intuitive the capacity for forming a relationship is learned.   We learn how to form strong, healthy & helpful relationships in our infancy – hopefully learning that our needs will be met for food, warmth, comfort, safety.

Finding someone to love & share your life with is an adventure.  It can be a hopeful, exciting, challenging experience that requires careful navigation through unchartered territory every time. 

What attracts us to someone?  Well usually it’s something about the other person that reminds us of….us.  Even the people who date often & are open to new relationships & new people may not find ‘everlasting’ love that easily.  Taking the romance out of the experience completely research indicates that couples who share the same friendship & social groups, who have similar interests have increased possibility of ‘success’.

Someone who encourages you to try new experiences & to widen your horizons can become a partner that brings a freshness to a long-term relationship.

As your friends are all invested in couple & family relationships it’s understandable that you feel a bit separate from them & a bit different.  A desire to fit in with your friends, share the experiences of getting married, having children & so on may seem very appealing.  However, your friends might be looking at you & envious of your life, your freedom from significant responsibilities, your independence to make decisions about your life.

While you hope to find a person to build a life with it might be helpful to start that special relationship with yourself.  Whatever life holds for you the relationship with yourself is one of the most, & possibly the most, important relationship you will have. 

As you take care of yourself, get to really know yourself, what you like, what you would like to do, you become increasingly self-aware. Be curious about yourself & take good care of yourself, eating well, sleeping enough, making time to play & have fun.  With your friends in committed relationships I wonder do you have as much opportunity to have play?  Now might be a time to start new experiences, getting out into nature, helping out in your community, speak kindly to yourself noticing what is helpful & positive in your life.  Living your life will support you in being able to ‘open up’ to experiences & opportunities.

 

I know lots of people have felt unhappy during lockdown, but I really do think I’m stuck in a rut. I’m in a good job, I have good friends and family and I am happy with that most of the time. I thought I’d come out of lockdown having lost weight and gotten fit and while I made promises to do those things, I never did! And now we are coming out of lockdown and some of my friends have been really organised and achieved something, but I feel the same. I know it’s done to me, but I can’t shake the feeling of being in a rut.

Grace, Co Armagh

 

Hello Grace,

You’ve tapped into a shared experience for many at the minute.  Lots of people looked forward to lockdown lifting and life becoming a little more recognisable.  Instead, for some there’s a sense of flatness.

Our collective wellbeing has been under assault for over a year in so many different ways.  People have lost their jobs, parents have realised how little they remember about maths and what they do remember isn’t the way it’s done anymore and for many, lockdown was an isolating, debilitating lonely experience. 

While there are hopes for lockdown continuing to lift uncertainty remains.  We’re exhausted, stressed and unsure about what the future holds.  It’s hard to be optimistic in such circumstances.  In a way, that sense of rut that you’re feeling is familiar to you, it’s safe because you understand it.  Our brains like to understand what is happening, to have an idea of what the future might hold and that hasn’t been possible for over a year.

Being stuck in a rut is the very definition of what the lockdown experience has been like for many.  The same routine day after day. 

It sounds as though you’ve had the chance to meet up with friends since restrictions are easing and you’re comparing yourself with them.  While lots of people looked forward to seeing friends and family, they have been surprised by how exhausting they’ve found the experience.

We’ve spent over a year not being able to socialise as we would usually, all our familiar interests like going to the gym or the cinema or the pub have all disappeared.  Not having a chance to engage in life fully leaves us feeling flat, leaves us feeling that our life is a bit of a rut.

Things can and will change for you.  Give yourself time.  You are not alone in feeling mixed emotions around post-lockdown life.

While it’s not unusual to compare ourselves with others it’s not very helpful right now.  Everyone has had their own lockdown experience and you’ve had yours.  It’s not what you hoped but you have managed.

We are all emerging from a collective trauma experience from the loss everyone has suffered.  We’re still trying to learn how to cope with the uncertainty, which is not a comfortable feeling.  Try not to plan too far into the future and focus on the present.   You’ve spoken about the good relationships that you have with friends and family, gently start to practice socialising with them, you’ve mentioned that you have a good job and that you are happy most of the time.  Take the time to cherish these experiences, nurture yourself with the people and experiences that nourish you.  Most of all, be kind to yourself now – you’ve been through a lot.  

 

Hi Louanne

I started a new job six months ago and to everyone looking in, everything is going well. I have a great team; everyone has been very encouraging, and I feel part of the company. But under the surface I feel overwrought the whole time. I am doing a good job but feel like an impostor, as though the company is going to catch me out for not being good enough. I’ve spoken with friends and family about it, and they’ve all assured me that I’m good at what I’m doing. But I can’t convince myself. I haven’t been given any indication that my work is unhappy, but I can’t shake the feeling of being unsatisfactory.

Gerard, Co Down

 

Hello Gerard,

Congratulations on your new job.  You’ve started a new role at a very interesting & stressful time.  Even if this was the easiest of times, which it isn’t, adjusting to a new role in a new company with new people is a demanding experience.  You’ve put in the hard work in securing the role, spent six months getting to know your team, integrating into the company receiving positive feedback & validation but instead of feeling like it’s time to enjoy your success you feel like an imposter about to be exposed as a fraud.

Your use of the word ‘imposter’ in your letter is interesting.   This is a real experience, a pattern of feelings that are known as ‘imposter syndrome’ (even though it is not a ‘syndrome’ as such & has no clinical diagnosis – it is itself an imposter).  You might recognise some of the characteristics of the imposter syndrome, possibly believing that you don’t deserve the achievements you have gained or are not worthy of the high respect in which you are held or are not as capable as people think & that you live on the verge of being ‘found out’. 

You mentioned talking with friends & family about the feelings you have & interestingly their attempts to reassure you, to support you in your success can add to the sense of being a ‘fraud’.  You are caught in a difficult position of hoping to do well but fearing the responsibility that doing well brings – having to continue to succeed, the fear of making a mistake, the fear of uncertainty.

Experiences that may contribute to feelings of being an ‘imposter’ include being in a competitive environment, pressure to ‘achieve’ academically, the desire for elusive (impossible) ‘perfectionism’. 

Research into ‘imposter’ syndrome documented the phenomenon in high achieving women more often, though not exclusively, than men. 

To support you feeling happier & healthier in your life both personally & professionally it would be helpful to take a step back & start to look at yourself with some kindness & compassion.  You have been recruited to your role because you are able to do it.  It would be illogical for an organisation to employ someone unable to do the job.  You earned your place.

Take the time to acknowledge what you do, in your own right – irrespective of others’ achievements.  Stop continually comparing yourself unhelpfully to others.  It’s possible that you put a lot of pressure on yourself to achieve every task perfectly, without ever making a mistake.  This is unrealistic, you probably wouldn’t expect it from another, but you demand it from yourself.  Never making a mistake stifles creativity & spontaneity.  Be ‘enough’ - not perfect.  Be nourished by what you do – not diminished.

 

You can submit a letter for the column by emailing askweekend@belfasttelegraph.co.uk. Please note, all of the names of the people below have been altered to protect the identity of the letter writers. 

For more information on how Relate NI can support you visit https://www.relateni.org/our_services

 

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