Just Because I’m Crying…….

I’ve heard people complain that it’s impossible for anyone to stay positive all the time and that all of the recent advice about happiness and positivity is, therefore, complete bullshit.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, I agree that it’s impossible for everyone to be happy all the time. No, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth making the effort to be more positive.

Critics will be pleased to hear that I’m regularly in tears.

When I was waiting to know my biopsy results, I cried.

When I got my diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer, I cried. I cried again when I googled ‘triple negative breast cancer’, and again when I read my pathology report, and again when I had to phone my daughter, half a world away on holidays in China, and give her my news.

I cried a lot over the next couple of days, variously terrified and numb and moved by the kindness and compassion of my friends. Every time my husband held me, I would leak quiet tears onto his shoulder.

When my daughter arrived home from China I met her at the railway station. We both got a bit moist but we didn’t cry. We were both trying to be strong for each other. We were both trying to reassure each other that I was going to be okay and she was going to be okay and that there was no way I was going to die from this so we didn’t need to cry.

I cried when my hair started to fall out.  I cried again when I said to my husband “Well this is going to be unattractive!” and he said, “Well yes, but it’s not like you weren’t expecting it.”  What I really wanted to hear was that I was going to look just as beautiful to him without hair. Then I remembered that I love his honesty, even if it sometimes means hearing what I don’t want to hear. Of course I look better with hair. But I still felt sad.

I cried after dinner for my daughter’s 21st with her lovely boyfriend and my gentle husband and my brave mum. I wondered if it was possible for me to have the evening my Mum just did, enjoying a grandchild turning 21. I wondered if I would live to meet my daughter’s beautiful babies and what sort of difference it would make to her if I wasn’t around to help her with nappies and breastfeeding and very annoying unsolicited advice. I cried a lot about that.

The tears don’t stop me being positive. I think they help. It seems to me that crying when you feel sad is as natural as laughing when you find something funny.

My daughter is very good at crying. I tried to cheer her up when she was a sobbing two year old and she said, “Mummy, I know you’re trying to help but I really need to get the sadness out!” So I held her, and she cried.  I’ve admired her ability to weep without embarrassment or apology ever since. Her record is three days of on-and-off crying the first time her heart was broken by a clumsy teenage boy. At the end of three days she emerged from her bedroom and declared that she was done with being sad about him and that he didn’t deserve any more of her tears. And she was right.

Sometimes you just have to get the sadness out.

Most of the time I prefer to cry alone. I know that it upsets some people. I also like the freedom to cry things out without distraction.

Sometimes there’s nothing better than someone rubbing your back and passing you tissues while you sob away. My husband is a wonderful crying support person, and also good at knowing when I’m about to tip over. There’s a process that kicks in when getting the sadness out can become wallowing about in the sadness, laying face down in the sadness and holding your head submerged in the sadness until your face goes blue.

Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. He’s very good at asking me if I’m done, just at that point when I really should be.

For me, there’s a real release in crying. I really do feel better after a good cry. If I’ve been crying for a while and I’m not feeling any better then I usually realise I’ve gone too far. I recognise that now I’m feeling sad about feeling sad. Sometimes I find myself in a downward spiral where one reason for being sad reminds me of lots of other reasons for being sad and before I know it I’m swimming about in my own pool of tears. I’m getting much better at pulling myself up from that.

I’ve found that it helps if I deliberately make a decision about crying, and limit it to just one thing. I cry to feel better and not to feel worse. If I find myself drifting off in search of new material I bring myself back to my original reason. Funny, because that’s the same technique used in meditation. You establish a framework with a single point of focus. You notice distractions and bring your mind gently back to the single point of focus. Once you feel you have that focus you let go.

Have I just invented crying meditation? (Yes, I’m joking, but I know a smiley face at this point would be annoyingly cute.)

After I’ve had a good cry it’s much easier for me to be happy. I feel like I’ve done my emotional laundry and hung my sadness out to dry.

Just because I’m crying it doesn’t mean I’m not positive.

Being positive isn’t about being happy all the time. It means that you make a deliberate effort to be as happy and content as you reasonably can be for as often as you are able to achieve that. It means recognising that sometimes we dig our own emotional holes and then blame someone else for the mess. It’s a choice. We can choose not to do it.

But it’s not about denying the reality that sometimes we all experience genuinely sad and distressing events or circumstances. When that happens, feeling sad for a while is healthy and normal. Crying helps.

I’ve had other reasons to cry.

When a group I haven’t belonged to for years heard of my cancer they got together and bought me a tree. They sent someone from the group around to my home with their thoughtful gift and a beautiful card from all of them. I cried.

When a young man I met while I was learning the cello sent me a message to say he was sorry to hear about my cancer diagnosis and was coming up to cook my husband and I a baked dinner, I cried.

When I read all of the beautiful messages of love and support that people post on Facebook I regularly have a quick weep over their thoughtfulness.

When good friends come over and ignore the cancer and make me laugh and laugh until my ears flap there’s usually a good mix of tears in there too.

I cry with joy and because I’m moved by people’s kindness and because I’m so happy to be alive.

I don’t know why great happiness and great sadness both involve tears. Maybe tears are just a human reaction to extreme emotion. They always feel like a release to me. Something starts way down in my body, moves up through my chest and my throat and pushes its way out through my eyes.

It doesn’t seem to make any difference to me whether my tears are happy or sad. The end result is that I’m left feeling peaceful, quiet and content.

And happier.


The Friends That Stay Away

I love Stephanie Dowrick’s work. So many of her ideas have become a part of my thinking that it can surprise me when I re-read one of her books. “So THAT’s where I got it from!”

In ‘Universal Love’ she taught me a life changing lesson; No single human being can meet anyone’s every emotional need. Obvious really. It’s ridiculous to expect anyone to do so. Yet romantic love songs would have us believe that our ‘soulmate’ can somehow be everything we ever needed. Stephanie’s opinion was eloquently reinforced when I complained to a girlfriend one day about my husband’s desire to fix my problems rather than just listen and empathise. “Well you don’t have a husband for that. That’s what you have girlfriends for!”

Since that time, along with taking responsibility for my own happiness, I’ve recognised that a rich, healthy emotional life is populated by all sorts of relationships with a diverse collection of people. Some of them have been here for the long haul. Some have suddenly, sometimes painfully, decided not to be part of my life. Some of them are deep, intimate relationships and some of them are joyful and light hearted.

I think of my relationships with other people as being a series of concentric circles. Here’s me, right in the middle and all on my own. This is the me that only I know, with all my hopes, dreams, secrets and shadows. This is my core and essential to being mentally healthy. There is a ‘me’ that exists independently from anyone else. Ask any of my friends who I am and you’ll get lots of slightly different descriptions. None of them are really me. This is me.

The next circle out are the people closest to me. My husband, my daughter. Close family and people that I’ve chosen to make part of my family.

The next circle are my dearest friends, followed by the broader group of friends we socialise with and so on out to the local chef at our favourite restaurant, the guys that deliver the mulch for my garden and the woman at the supermarket check out that always calls me ‘Darling’ and asks how my day has been.

Beyond these circles are the people I’ll never meet, the people I am yet to meet and the people that are no longer a part of my life.

This model has been very useful to me over the years. When someone becomes more distant I think of them as moving outwards through the circles. I’ve sometimes deliberately repositioned someone because my relationship with them was destructive, negative or just uncomfortable. I rarely ‘unfriend’ someone but I sometimes mentally shift the relationship to a safer place.

I’ve also used it to acknowledge those friendships that grow closer over time. People move in. Most of my closest friends were further out when we met. It’s a rare friendship that starts in an inner circle.

Movement becomes more likely the further out you go. The occasional relationships with shop staff don’t require a huge emotional investment and I’d be momentarily sorry if the nice woman moved on to another job but it wouldn’t make a big difference to my life. The closer you get to the centre, the higher the emotional investment and the more traumatic it can be when these relationships shift.

I’ve heard about people with breast cancer that find themselves suddenly without a partner or a very dear friend. That hasn’t happened to me and I don’t think there’s any way to feel about that other than devastated. I heard of one woman whose husband chose the day of her diagnosis to announce he’d be leaving her for another woman. He figured she may as well have all her bad news at once. I hope he gets the life he deserves.

Cancer has a way of messing with your relationships. Some people move closer and some move further out. Some people are good in a crisis and enjoy being able to help. Some people find the disease confronting, frightening and difficult to deal with. Some people just have other priorities.

I’ve had some people quote that cliche: “You find out who your friends are.” This implies that the people that stay away aren’t my friends. I don’t think that’s true. I think everyone gets to react to cancer in their own way. I saw the same thing when my Dad died of cancer. We were shocked that some life long friends were suddenly, silently absent. We were moved by the generosity of outer circle friends that moved in to help. It was also interesting to observe the way some people provided quiet, timely, practical assistance without any thought for themselves and some people turned up in the final days of his death to be demonstrably distressed or suddenly saint like. Real life drama will attract the drama queens!

I’m a long, long way from the final days of my life. My friends are all figuring out their own strategies for how to respond to my illness. Some of them have bought me thoughtful gifts, weeded the garden, cooked food, taken me out, given me a hug, sat and talked and listened and listened and listened. Some have sent cards or messages on facebook or emails. Some have come with me to chemotherapy or doctors appointments or researched my cancer and sent me information.

And some have stayed away.

Some of them have made contact to say that they are sorry, but they just can’t deal with cancer. Some of them have a history of nursing someone they love through cancer, or watching someone they love die from it. They shouldn’t worry. Friends stay friends. I hope when I’m through all this we can catch up again.

Some of them have just vanished from my life.

I think that some of them were busy when they first got the news and that now, several months later, it feels odd to make contact. They shouldn’t worry. Friends stay friends. I understand. Get back in touch when you’re ready.  Time is pretty much standing still for me at the moment anyway. Has it been months? It feels like days.

I also think it’s likely that some of them have so much going on in their own lives that they feel badly about not being able to do more and so they stay away.  They shouldn’t worry. I know that not everything is about me! Everyone has their own stuff to deal with and I don’t have any expectation that any friend will make me a priority. All offers of assistance are gratefully accepted. But don’t feel obliged. Each according to their ability and their desire.

I know that when friends face difficulty I’m one of those people that likes to do something practical to help, but I also know that, depending upon what’s going on in my life at the time it’s not always possible for me to be there for them. That’s life. It’s a messy, complicated thing which refuses to behave nicely when you need it to.

I’m pretty sure that at least a few of my friends find my illness and my appearance confronting. I’ve now got that classic cancer patient look about me. My hair is gone. My eyelashes and eyebrows are thinning (but still hanging in there..woohoo!). I suppose it would make it easier for people if I’d make more of an effort to look normal but the chemotherapy has triggered menopause and my bald head is a wonderful heat release system for the hot flushes. Sometimes you’ve just got to put your own comfort first. I am. They are entitled to do the same.

I know some people find being around me upsetting. It’s not that I’m a bag of misery. I’m mostly pretty cheerful. It’s just that cancer is a conversation vampire and inclined to remind people of the chance that I might die in the not too distant future, or that they might die in the not too distant future. Some people do not want to have afternoon tea with death. I get it.  Being around this disease is not anybody’s idea of fun!

Some people don’t know what to say. There’s no script for this. It’s awkward to say “How are you?” when the obvious answer is “I have cancer.” If you’re stuck, just ask what the nurses in hospital ask. “How are you feeling today?”

And talk about yourself. Please. Tell me what’s going on in your life and something funny that happened last week and what you’re planning to do with your next holiday. I love not talking about cancer.

I’ve been very lucky. My husband has been more wonderful than I expected. The friends that I knew I could rely on have just kept being the amazing people that they are. Thanks to Facebook I feel surrounded by community of friends from every circle that continue to flood me with their love and good wishes. Some of them don’t see this as doing much, but it’s one of the most important things that anyone can do. Just knowing that all those people are wishing me well and thinking of me gives me strength and courage. I’m going to need both of those.

I know that some people will move inwards and some people will move outwards and that there’s a possibility that some people will move out of my life. It’s all good. At the end of all this, some people will be closer friends and some people won’t but I’m sure that there will still be people in every circle. It’s quality that matters when it comes to those inner circles, not quantity.

To the friends that have stayed away, please know this; I do not think badly of you. I understand why some people stay away. Know that if, from time to time, you hold a thought of me in your heart and wish me well then that is enough. I hope you find a way to reconnect when you are ready. And if not, I wish you a life of good friendships.


PS: To all those friends that stayed away when they had colds, or even thought they might have early symptoms, or were over a cold but just wanted to make sure they didn’t infect me with something that could put a chemotherapy patient into hospital, my very sincere thanks.


Sometimes my brain wakes me in the early hours of the morning with an idea that refuses to go away until I write it down.

Yesterday I blogged about backsliding, and how I try to learn from my mistakes and move forward. I included a quote from my primary school teacher about life not being a dress rehearsal and a link to Diana Krall singing ‘Pick yourself up.’ The interesting thing about the clip was that although it’s listed as a live performance it’s actually a rehearsal. The musicians have a discussion at the start of it about how the song begins, and another chat at the end of it about how it all went.

Two things about rehearsal. Hmmm.

The idea that popped into my head last night was about rehearsal and what a great analogy it is for change.

My husband is a full time IT employee and a part time musician. He plays bass in a rock band and acoustic guitar in a cool trio. One of the most frustrating things about performing in a band is the way people make requests as if they are a juke box. There seems to be very little appreciation of all the work that goes into adding a song to their set list. My husband feels tempted to say to them “Sure thing. Just book the band for two months time and we’ll play it for you!”

Apart from agreeing on a song and figuring out how to play it, there are issues around which key is best, which arrangement is best, which tempo is best and often, whether or not it’s sufficiently good to add to the set list even after all that work has been done.

I’d love to be able to play something well enough to be in a band. I’m not interested in the performance side of things but I’d love to be able to rehearse. Plan, do, review, learn, plan, do, review, learn……and around and around again. What a great reminder of how rarely we get anything right the first time.

It’s also a gentle process. Musicians that don’t rehearse well together rarely last as a band. There’s an acceptance of imperfection, mistakes and everyone’s different levels of skill and mastery. It’s not only okay to make mistakes, it’s essential to the process. It’s also about recognising that moment when something glorious happens and it all comes together.

It’s given me a new way of thinking about my efforts to conquer cancer. I’m not backsliding.

I’m rehearsing.



I had my third round of chemotherapy on Monday. It didn’t go as well as the previous two. I know why.

I started treatment with a really strong focus on doing everything I could do to support the process. I paid close attention to all of the advice I was given about caring for myself and minimising the side effects of treatment. I made notes. I wrote lists. I ticked things off.

Then I started to backslide.

I struggle to remember my mouth care. It’s not pleasant for follow a meal with a wash of carb soda, so I put it off and then realise when I get to my next meal that I didn’t do it.

I struggle to drink enough water. I thought I had this one sorted. Just fill a big jug at the start of the day and drink it all by the end of the day. Brilliant! Unless I somehow just don’t get around to filling the jug.

I became upset at an offhand comment my husband made and ended up in tears, lost a night’s sleep and then wondered if this might have something to do with menopause kicking in. (To be fair, what he said was unkind. Just so we’re clear.)

If you’ve read my post on breast cancer and alcohol you’ll appreciate my ongoing concerns about a nice glass of red. I made a commitment to never drink more than 200 mls in a night (a standard drink is apparently 100 mls but seriously, who pours that glass of wine?) and I also made a commitment to only have wine on the weekend, if at all.  I’ve broken that commitment twice. Once because I wasn’t thrilled with a test result and once because friends called by and it was just nice to sit and drink wine and feel ‘normal’ again.

I’m not doing nearly enough yoga or meditation. Daily means EVERY day! I keep forgetting to take my vitamin D.

I’ve over exerted myself a couple of times and even managed to pull a muscle in my shoulder moving some dirt around. I am not very good at resting or relaxing and I need to remind myself that eating to be polite is a bad idea when you’re feeling nauseated.

Today I woke up with an awful, phlemy cough! I’ve been so careful with hand wipes and hand gel and avoiding crowds but I don’t want to spend my whole treatment at home. Maybe it was the trip to a restaurant on the weekend, or the 20 people at the Buddhist class. Maybe someone in my family carried the germs home. Who knows! Off to the doctor for antibiotics so I can avoid the serious complication of neutropenia; when your white blood cells are low a mild infection can become life threatening very quickly. I’ll be wearing my in-ear thermometer like an accessory today.

I’m not beating myself up.

Backsliding is to be expected. Change takes effort and time. I’m breaking old habits and building new ones. If treatment is a mountain that I need to climb then slipping on the path occasionally or putting a foot wrong is no reason to give up.

I remember that when I worked in general duty policing we were sometimes called to the death of a person with a chronic illness. It struck me that many people died prematurely because they failed to properly manage their condition. I saw a young man in his 30’s, grossly overweight because he refused to manage his diabetes, and a woman with asthma that consistently failed to take her medication. Why? Why is it that we can have access to some of the best available medicine and medical advice on the planet and refuse to take it. Why is there a gap between knowledge and behaviour?

It’s a recurring theme for me. I also saw young people ruin their lives with addictive drugs, knowing the whole time that what they were doing was dangerous. It made me confront my own smoking (cigarettes, just to be clear) and the fact that I had all of the information in front of me to know the damage I was doing but continued to smoke in spite of it. Why?

You don’t just see this gap in policing. You see it everywhere. People that are chronically overweight that consistently fail to lose it. People that drink too much, or continue to gamble or smoke or participate in any other kind of destructive behaviour in spite of the overwhelming evidence that what they are doing is self destructive. Why?

One of the most destructive habits is self delusion. I know people that lie to themselves (and often to others) on a regular basis. They seem completely unaware that the rest of us know they are lying, and that not calling them on their lies is about being kind, or at least courteous, rather than a sign that we believe them.

So what are the keys to change? I don’t think it’s as simple as those self-help books that recommend the SMART method; they tell you that you should set goals that are simple, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound. That’s a good starting point. Plenty to be going on with. But probably one step further on than where we need to start.

I think the keys to change start with how much we value ourselves and to what extent we believe we are worth the effort. Many of us treat our bodies like a car, forgetting that we can’t trade it in when it breaks down. Many of us don’t even treat our bodies that well. If your car gets a regular service and you don’t, you have to wonder about your priorities. We get one body for the whole of this lifetime.  How we look after it will have a huge impact on how well we live and how long we live.

I think an excellent test of self worth is to think about how we would treat someone we love in the same situation. If your partner, your parent, your child was treating themselves as you are treating yourself, how would you feel about it? Would you treat them the same way you are treating yourself? Why not? Don’t you deserve to be treated as well as you would treat them?

Another key is recognising that life is finite. “This is not a dress rehearsal” my wonderful sixth class teacher used to say, “This is the main event!”. We don’t have unlimited time to make changes and sometimes there’s no going back once a decision has been made.

My third key to change is about recognising that change requires effort. It’s human nature to slip back into old patterns. Our habits become our default settings and changing them takes more than just a decision. You need a process. You need to come up with a way to shift your behaviour from how it used to be to how you want it to be. In management you learn various cycles for improvement. My favourite is PDRL (there are many variations) which stands for Plan, Do, Review, Learn. It’s drawn as a circle. Once you learn, you revise your plan and around you go again. The great thing about these models is that they incorporate backsliding, mistakes, miscalculations, errors in judgement and the unexpected. That’s a great lead in to my next key.

My fourth key to change is permission to stuff up. Our culture is mistake averse. In school we get humiliated when we make a mistake. For some people, their parents reinforced this. When my daughter made a mistake growing up I would reassure her. She was ‘still learning’ and never punished. Discipline was reserved for dishonesty and unacceptable behaviour. If you think about it, the phrase ‘honest mistake’ is a tautology; there’s no such thing as a dishonest mistake! In order to change we have to be comfortable with failure. We’re only learning.

I can remember attending a short management course during my career that used juggling as a great analogy. We were all given three juggling balls at the start of the course and told to juggle them. Nobody could. During the course (which I recall was otherwise unremarkable) we were given instruction in juggling at various points. By the end of the course, most of us could keep three balls in the air. There were two points they were trying to make. The first was that even though most of us started the day thinking it would be impossible to learn to juggle, we had. The second was that in order to learn to juggle we needed to learn the most important lesson; it’s essential to drop the ball.

Too often a stuff up is an excuse to beat ourselves up. We need to rewrite that script. It’s part of learning. We usually don’t wake up in the morning thinking “How can I really stuff up today?”

My fifth key to change is to acknowledge what’s working as part of the ‘learning’ cycle. While it’s important to honestly confront my deficiencies it’s just as important to give myself credit for progress. It’s also useful to look at what’s working and why.

My decision to ditch commercial face creams in favour of organic rose hip oil means my skin has never looked better. I’m eating well and improving my ability to rest and take it easy. I’m recognising that throwing my body at the garden is unhealthy. I’m managing my nausea well. It’s not all bad news.

As a consequence of my backsliding I’ve been thinking about the difference between regret and guilt and blame. I think regret is an essential part of learning and my final key to change. Regret can be a spring board. Spending some time honestly acknowledging where I went wrong, and being prepared to experience the regret associated with that, is part of the process. Refusing to look at something doesn’t mean it goes away. Guilt and blame on the other hand are highly destructive.

I’m going to take some time over the next couple of days to think about some strategies for getting back on track.

I’ve recruited my husband’s help by asking him to remind me of all the things on my list. He doesn’t much want to be my conscience but I need his support. My daughter will probably leap at the chance to help. She’s a highly empathic person and really appreciates the opportunity to pitch in.

I think when we backslide, asking for help is a good strategy. So is sharing my commitment to change with people that I care about. Just telling them what I’m trying to achieve helps to strengthen my resolve.

I also find it helpful to link things to existing habits. If I fill my water jug before my morning coffee and rinse my mouth after I’ve cleaned up from a meal it will be easier to remember both. If I do my yoga and meditation before I get to the computer I’ll spend less time on facebook and more time caring for my body.

I suspect the wine will be an ongoing challenge. It’s odd, because I have no difficulty giving it up. I stopped when I was pregnant and breastfeeding and I stopped for five years when I lived with someone that couldn’t drink. It’s really the social aspect of it that appeals to me. Maybe I need to take up drinking soda water with slices of lemon. People will probably assume I’ve switched to gin and tonic. (Why does that matter? Hmmm.)

It doesn’t matter if I’m fighting cancer, addiction, or anything else. It helps to have reasonable expectations about the effort involved in change. I usually like the idea of only trying to change one thing at a time but sometimes you just don’t have that option. Sometimes, like now, I’ve got a combination of temporary practices and permanent habits that all need work at once.

I’m gong to keep planning, doing, reviewing and learning. I know I’ll get there.

It’s okay to drop the ball. It’s having the courage to pick it up and keep going that really matters.

Love this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p_JxDGVqXg

Catching Ants



When you’re working on having a more positive outlook on life it pays to spend some time catching ANTs.

ANTs are the automatic negative thoughts that whisper sweet miseries inside our heads.  Here’s a couple of common examples:

“Well that’s ruined my day.”

“I have such terrible luck. This is just typical.”

“Well of course I stuffed that up.”

“I’m such a loser.”

“I’m so fat/ugly/wrinkled/unattractive.”

And, importantly for those of us fighting cancer,

“Doctors are fools. They have no idea.”

“These drugs are useless.”

“What’s the use. I’m probably going to die anyway!’

The problem with this kind of self talk is that we become so accustomed to it that we don’t even question it. That’s why it’s called ‘automatic’. Some of it was programmed into us as children and some of it has been incorporated into our script as a consequence of our experiences as adults. All of it is negative and self destructive. It not only makes you feel dreadful, it also affects your hormone levels and your immune system.

People with a really bad ANT infestation sound gloomy. The ANT’s invade their speech and their demeanour. They’re usually described as ‘negative’ people because most of their conversation is critical of themselves or other people. They are not fun to be around!

I think the hardest part about exterminating ANTs is learning to spot them. Some of them are so ingrained that we don’t even recognise them. Here’s a great test of how positive or negative your self talk tends to be; for one hour, try not to complain about anything. Try not to be critical of anything. Every time you feel the need to complain or be critical, make a note of it. You can write it down or just keep a rough idea of gripes per hour (or gripes per minute for some of us!). Once you’ve got a rough idea of how negative you tend to be, try reversing the experiment. Spend one hour noticing how often you are grateful, complimentary, appreciative, thankful and just plain happy.

If you’re short on time try half an hour. Even fifteen minutes will give you some idea. Another great experiment is just to spend one whole day without complaining. Sounds easy, doesn’t it. Until you try it! If you can manage one whole day without complaining, try one whole day without thinking a complaining thought. What comes out of your mouth is a pretty good reflection of what’s going on inside  your head, but there are also a lot of insidious ANT’s that never get spoken out loud. You’ll start to notice them the more you focus on listening for them.

When I was learning to drive a police car there was a technique they used called a running commentary. We would have to speak our internal dialogue. This served two purposes; it made us focus on our driving (you’re hardly going to tell and instructor you’re thinking about writing a novel while you’re supposed to be driving a car) and it excluded thoughts about the past and the present. Giving a running commentary makes you very much ‘in the present’. It sounded a bit like this:

“I’m checking the road ahead. The traffic is moderate and there seems to be a bit of a build up ahead. There’s a set of lights that have been green for some time so I’m covering the brake. I can see there’s a car coming up fast behind me……..”

You get the idea. When I was working on my own ANTs I found it useful to run the same kind of commentary inside my head, just focusing on what I was doing throughout the day. Initially it sounded a lot like this:

“I suppose nobody’s remembered to unload the dishwasher. Nope. Let the maid get it. Why is this always my job? I wonder if Judy is going to call. Probably not. She always waits for me to organise things. She probably doesn’t really want to spend time with me and that’s why she never calls. I wonder what I’ll have for lunch. I’ve got some of that healthy salad left over from dinner. Blech. I’d rather have something naughty. I’ll start my diet next week. Or not. I never seem to lose any weight anyway. Why do I bother…..”

And so on.

Now I’m not going to pretend that I never complain or have a negative thought, but after lots of practice I’m much better. These days my internal dialogue sounds a lot more like this:

“What a beautiful day. I’m so grateful to be alive. I’m going to empty the dishwasher and then give Deb a call. She’s such a great friend. I hope we’ll be able to get together soon. I think I’ll have that left over salad from last night for lunch today. I always feel so much better when I nourish my body with healthy food. I’ll probably do my yoga early today because I want to be out in the garden this afternoon, unless my daughter wants to head out to the shops. Spending time with her always trumps everything else…”

Here’s something I found really interesting. When they do research into optimists and pessimists the find that you can divide their day into objectively positive, negative and neutral events. What’s interesting is that there is no measurable difference between people that are positive and people that are negative. They have roughly the same amount of ‘bad luck’ and the same amount of ‘good luck’ regardless of their outlook. The critical difference is that a positive person magnifies the good events and sees those as being the normal state of affairs. A positive person sees a negative event as an exception, different to what they would normally expect.

Of course, a negative person is exactly the opposite. They expect bad stuff to happen to them. When it does, they take it as confirming their generally bleak view of the world. “That’s just my luck!” they’ll say. Remember, put them next to a positive person and they’ve had just as many great things happen to them, but they’ve decided to see those events as unusual.

Over the next few months I’ll do a series of blogs on some of the more common ANTs and give your some strategies for overcoming them. The key messages for today are that you don’t need to put up with ANTs and you can learn to recognise them and get rid of them. Usually this involves challenging the ANT.  Here’s an example of what that sounds like inside your head:

“Oh brilliant. My alarm didn’t go off. I’ve missed the train. Now I’ll be late to work. It’s just going to be one of those days. I should have stayed in bed and called in sick. Knowing my luck I’ll probably get the sack……..wait a minute….what am I doing? That’s a whole series of ANTs! Let’s just think about this for a minute. Okay, my alarm didn’t go off and I missed the train but that doesn’t mean my whole day is going to go badly. There’s no reason the rest of my day won’t be great! Yes, I’m going to be late but I can call ahead and let them know. They know I’m usually really punctual and that I do a good job so it’s not going to be a big deal. I’ll tell the boss I’m going to work back to make up the lost time. Of course I shouldn’t have stayed home. I’m sure work would much rather I was late than not showing up at all, and I think it’s dishonest to use sick days when I’m not sick…..”

Some people keep an ANT diary. When they find themselves having a negative thought they write it down and then find a way to rewrite it as a positive statement. If you have a major ANT infestation this can be a brilliant way of really paying attention to those insidious whispers in your head.

Another way of dealing with ANTs is to just have a couple of great phrases to challenge them. My two favourites are “So then what happens?” and “Where’s the evidence for that?”.

Even if you’re not up for a detailed exploration of your inner dialogue in search of ANTs, just being aware of their existence and their ability to undermine you will help. Start listening to what comes out of your mouth. Are you more likely to say something positive or negative? How about the people you spend time with? What do they sound like? I find that paying attention to how positive or negative someone else is helps me to develop a stronger ability to hear myself. I’ve also found that I was keeping company with some people that were so consistently negative that I decided to see less of them.

Catching ANTs has taken on a whole new perspective for me now that I’m dealing with breast cancer. I think it’s really important not to beat up on myself just because I have a negative thought. While I think we can help ourselves by being as positive as possible it’s also important to be realistic about our situation. Negative thoughts are going to happen! What helps me is to catch them quickly and challenge them sensibly. Here’s an example:

“What’s the point. I’m probably going to die of cancer anyway! ….okay, let’s look at the evidence for that. It’s a matter of fact that I’m going to die at some point, just like everyone else, but I don’t know when and I don’t even know if it will be cancer that kills me. Lots of people survive cancer and there’s no reason I can’t be one of them. I can choose to dwell on what might happen or I can focus on enjoying today and doing everything I can to get well.”

I’m not going to pretend that I never have any ANTs wander through my mind but I’m much better now at catching them and challenging them with logic.  I think it’s made me a nicer person to be around. It’s certainly made me happier.

Most of us are taught to treat our emotions as something beyond our control but you can’t really have any emotion without first having a thought. All of our emotional states, good or bad, are a consequence of our thinking. Pessimists and optimists both prove this every day.

If you’re reading this and thinking something like “What a waste of time.” or “How is it even possible to change your thinking?” then congratulations, you’ve found your first ANT. Have a go at rewriting that thought and see if it changes the way you feel.

Good luck. Happy ANT hunting.

Temporary Happiness


My last post was about ordinary happiness and the idea that happiness can become our default setting. In it I mentioned the Buddhist notion that happiness is a choice. I’ve found that idea really helpful when it comes to staying positive during my cancer treatment, but only after initially having some real difficulty in understanding it.  According to this philosophy, nothing ‘makes’ you happy. This seems contrary to my own experience, which is that all kinds of things make me happy. A hug from my daughter, a kiss from my husband, a wander through the garden and a phone call from a friend are all high on my list.

Surely all of these things are sources of happiness.

It’s been helpful for me to differentiate between those things that bring me temporary happiness and how they are different from my efforts to maintain a state of contentment as my new ‘normal’.

Maintaining happiness as a default setting requires practice and discipline. I’m trying to reprogram my mind’s natural tendency to find fault, complain, identify problems and hypothesise about worst case scenarios so that I’m able, instead, to see potential, be hopeful, feel grateful and be constructive. There’s a lot of different ways to build this capability, including the gratitude journal I mentioned. I’ll no doubt blog about some of the other strategies in the future, for anyone that’s interested. This process is different to the much simpler pursuit of everyday temporary happiness.

Anything that makes me smile, or makes me laugh, or gives me that warm inner glow, is a source of temporary happiness. I like to think of a smile as my reminder to be happy.

When you’re up against a serious illness, deliberately maximising your opportunities for temporary happiness is an excellent strategy. It’s easy, doesn’t need to cost you anything and has been proven to help everything from your hormone levels to your immune system.

I’ve started a list of things that make me smile or laugh. I keep it where I can see it and refer to it often throughout the day. My treatment makes me a bit vague (notorious chemo brain!) so a list is a really helpful reminder for those times when I just feel like I’m in a mental holding pattern. Even if I don’t do anything on the list, just reading it makes me happy!

Temporary happiness often involves distraction. No visualising wellness or mentally fighting cancer here. Just a tiny brain holiday where all you do is feel happy for a while.

Anyone with a pet knows about temporary happiness. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in your life, ten minutes curled up with a purring cat or playing with an excited dog will completely transform your mood. Pets have that extraordinary ability to bring us back into the present moment, to make us forget our worries for a while and to remind us that we can easily park our troubles and just have fun. My cat can’t pay my bills or cure my cancer but he can make me forget about everything for a while just by giving me a heat butt and purring enthusiastically when I scratch his chin.

The research into smiling is now well known; even a forced smile can stimulate your body to make the same beneficial chemicals as a real smile. It’s not just a case of “I’ll smile when I find something worth smiling about” it’s also “I’ll think of something worth smiling about when I smile.”  Even though I know this, I do find the whole forced smiling thing a bit…..well…forced! Sitting around with a fixed grin and waiting for my mood to shift isn’t as much fun as tweaking this technique: I’d rather do something that I know will make me smile.

A forced smile is a good way to remember things that are on my list. Go ahead and try it. Put a smile on your face and see if it makes you think of lots of things that make you smile. Make a list if it will help (but not if you’re one of those people that hates lists more than tooth decay!). Hopefully you’ll discover that putting a smile on your face helps you tap into all those memories you associate with smiling. You’ll already have a great distraction from a bad mood, just flicking through your mental album of things that have made you smile. You’ll also have a built in resource that provides you with all sorts of ideas about ways you can lift your mood. Pick something easy. Then do that instead of the whole forced smiling thing.

The best thing about this technique is that you carry it with you. Any time you’re feeling a bit blue, try smiling and see what it brings to mind. Hopefully, like me, it will remind you of some source of temporary happiness.

Ordinary Happiness


I love Michael Leunig’s cartoons. This one featured on our calendar for last month. I hope it’s large enough for you to read. He’s describing seven types of ordinary happiness. It was a beautiful reminder to me, all month, that my happiness is a choice and that all sorts of things can be a reason to smile.

A lot of people seem surprised by my happiness. When you get a diagnosis of a life threatening illness and a treatment regime that includes some pretty nasty risks and side effects, it’s assumed that you’ll probably be feeling pretty crappy about it all. Someone asked my husband about how he was coping with my mood swings. His reply was, “It’s not difficult. She only swings between two moods, happy and tired.” He’s exaggerating. I’ve certainly had my moments of fear, distress, frustration and sorrow. After all, I do have cancer. But I have found it possible to be happy most of the time. I like to think of it as my ‘default setting’.

I used to think that my emotions were something beyond my control. They descended upon me from who-knew-where and I was obliged to respond accordingly. Emotions were like the weather. Unpredictable. Entirely beyond my influence. It was often other people that had to endure the onslaught of my emotional storms.

Over the last decade I’ve been lucky enough to learn some different ideas about what causes our emotions.

I’m very grateful to Dr Suzy Green for her short course on happiness through Sydney University. A friend had booked this course and found she couldn’t go so she offered me the spot. I spent a fascinating day learning about playing to my strengths, being grateful and doing something worthwhile with my life. I was already familiar with a lot of these concepts but Suzy had a way of breaking them down to practical things that we could actually do to help improve our happiness.

I’d already found a career that played to my strengths and, as a police officer, I had no difficulty with whether or not I’d done anything worthwhile. I could also look at my beautiful daughter and know that one of the most worthwhile things that any of us can do is to be the best parent we can possibly be. What really made a difference in my life was Suzy’s suggestion that a gratitude journal could help me to achieve a permanent shift in my thinking.

It turns out that doing this once a week is better than doing it every day. I think I know why. If you’re going to record seven things on Sunday then you’re attuned to focusing on gratitude all week long. I used my digital camera and then, every Sunday, I’d post seven photographs in a Facebook album called ‘I am grateful’, along with a short description. I made a commitment to do this for a whole year.

Some of my friends joined in for part of the journey but, surprisingly, nobody else stuck with it for a year. It’s a pity, because, as Suzy promised, it really did change my life. If you do something over and over, for long enough, it becomes a habit. Gratitude is now so much a part of my thinking that I can’t remember what it was like to not think this way.

When you first start keeping a gratitude journal it can feel awkward and difficult. Yes, yes, we’re all grateful for our family and our friends and whatever health we have and our homes and our stuff but then what? I found myself deeply grateful for very simple things, like access to clean drinking water and the ability to walk into a supermarket and buy such an amazing diversity of healthy food. I was grateful for my hands, for people that invented or made the things I used with with my hands, for music, for clean air, for paper clips. I found I was grateful for big things, like technology that puts me in touch with the rest of the world, a public health system, democratic government and all of nature.

Being grateful doesn’t just make you happier. It also makes you a much nicer person to be around. As a natural extension of being grateful I found myself taking the time to genuinely thank people, to pay and pass on compliments and to gently shift conversations away from complaining to talking about how fortunate we are.

The local Buddhist centre run a one day course on happiness. I was very lucky to be able to attend that before I got cancer. They teach that happiness is an emotion that arises from within us. It is not caused by external things or people. Nobody ‘makes’ us unhappy. No situation can ‘give’ us an emotion. Instead, they teach that all emotions arise from our minds. We can decide to be happy. We can decide not to be happy.

For anyone growing up with traditional Western values around emotions this is radical stuff. We’re so used to blaming other people for upsetting us. The guy that cuts us off in traffic ‘ruins’ our morning. The rude person serving us in the shop ‘gives’ us the shits. The whole of our language around marriage and love is full of making other people responsible for our emotions; ‘You made me love you’; ‘Nobody hurts me like you do’; ‘My life is nothing without you.’;’Now I am complete because I’ve found you.’

Sometimes, changing our emotional response is as simple as reinterpreting the situation. The guy that cuts us off in traffic might have a sick child in the back seat, half way through a life threatening asthma attack. Of course, even if that’s not the case you have to wonder why we’d let one small act of discourtesy have so much importance in our day. For a Buddhist, getting cut off in traffic is potentially just as annoying, but they recognise that there is no benefit in becoming angry or upset. They train their mind to stay calm and to remain peaceful. Negative emotions are just a waste of energy.

But what about something bigger than a bit of road rage? What about life threatening illness? How could that not be distressing?

The same thinking applies. Your emotions are yours to control. There is no benefit in becoming angry or distressed. There is enormous benefit in remaining calm and peaceful.

There’s now good science to back up what the Buddhists already know. Happiness is good for you. It boosts your immune system and helps you to avoid disease. Happy people live longer and, not surprisingly, have a much better quality of life than unhappy people.

So I choose to be happy.

The easiest way for me to do this is to pay attention to my thinking. When it starts to slip into a negative emotional state I respond by listing things I’m grateful for. I am grateful that I am still alive. I am grateful for my wonderful medical team. I am grateful for the side effects of my chemo because they are proof that my drugs are working. I am grateful for my family and my friends.

My favourite part of Michael Leunig’s Seven Types of Happiness cartoon is the last bit; ‘Diffuse residual happiness resulting from rhythmic domestic tasks like washing dishes.’ It’s a beautiful reminder that even the mundane can be a source of happiness. I’m grateful for the dishes, the food we ate from them, the availability of hot water and the company of my husband as we clean the dishes, ready for our next meal together. When you shift to this kind of thinking there is no such thing as a chore.

If you’re finding it hard to be positive then I’d like to recommend you keep a gratitude journal for one year. Every Sunday, keep a record of seven things you’re grateful for that week. I always try to find something different but even if you repeat yourself sometimes it doesn’t matter. I loved using photos and Facebook but there are no rules for how you keep your own record. Some people use a book, some people draw pictures or make art, some people just use a status post every Sunday.

It might feel strange and forced for a while.  I really enjoy stretching it out and taking some time to be deeply grateful but it doesn’t need to take you longer than ten or fifteen minutes once a week. Given the potential for this really simple habit to make your life considerably better, don’t you think it’s worth a try? You can’t just agree with the concept and keep doing what you’ve always done. This will only work if you actually DO something.

Pick a day that works for you as a ‘grateful’ day, make a promise to be grateful for seven things on that day, every day for a year, and see what happens. Write it down. Share it or keep it to yourself.

Hopefully, like me, you’ll start to find that happiness becomes your default setting. You’ll still have the days when the tears come and the fear sneaks up on you but you’ll get better and better and shifting out of those negative emotional states and into one of peaceful contentment.

I’d love to see Sunday become ‘gratitude day’. Imagine if we all took some time out, once a week, to talk about the things we were grateful for, to thank the people that were important to us and cultivate a peaceful mind. I think the world would be a very different place.