Friday 26 April 2019

It takes one to know one

In her new book, psychologist Allison Keating looks at navigating the intricacies of adulthood and how understanding yourself is the first step in allowing your life to flourish

Advice: Author and psychologist Allison Keating shares her insight
Advice: Author and psychologist Allison Keating shares her insight
The Secret Lives of Adults, by Allison Keating, is published by Gill Books, priced €16.99

People have shared their lives and most-guarded secrets with me for nearly 20 years now. What I see and hear behind a safe, closed door at the clinic is the person's private self. This is the face most people don't get to see, the one that faces their biggest fears, worries, regrets and losses. As the relentless strive for perfection and expectations seems to continue to rise, the juggle and struggle of everyday life can take its toll on you and your core relationships. With many feeling under pressure, coupled with a sense of not doing a good enough job, the feeling of being stretched just that little bit too far is as common as it is uncomfortable.

To provide insight, to gain self-awareness and to have the techniques to put it all into your everyday life was what I wanted for you, the reader when writing this book. I wanted to give you the space to think about who you are, to really get to know yourself and in turn who you are in your seven key relationships. One day the title 'The Secret Lives of Adults' came to me as I thought about the most common words I hear from clients. I feel 'overwhelmed' is often followed swiftly by 'exhausted'. For years I have been saddened that as the gap between the private and public self grows so too does the sense of discontent.

Competent, successful, reliable people would sit in front of me, each of their lives like plates spinning precariously as they darted from one role to the next.

On any different day they may have cared for a sick or ageing parent, dealt with the sibling fall out from this, hit that deadline at work all while trying to be the consummate professional, supervised the homework and listened to their children's news for the day, had that conversation with their husband that kept causing rows and as for friends, they were replied to on WhatsApp, date in the diary to meet in two months.

And yet we wonder why people are feeling stretched to the limit, exhausted and with a creeping dread of 'what's next?' and 'what did I forget?'.

Starting with yourself, you are a trilogy, divided into your private, public and unconscious self. This is where it gets tricky, some parts others don't know about you, some parts they do and some parts of yourself that you don't even know about. Talk about a lot of blind spots. Can you see why having real insight into yourself is so complex?

With so much information out there the advice can be conflicting. One week do this, the next week... it's the worst in the world. This is why I love psychology and the science of human behaviour, backed up not by anecdotes or opinions but solid tested evidence-based theories. The joy of my job is to take that great information and share it with you.

Looking at yourself in your core lives, from parent to partner, the book wasn't a just a quest of understanding 'why my boss drives me crazy' or 'why am I so sensitive when my mum says that to me', it was a quest to provide you with evidence-based theories on how to change things that you can put into practice in real life, and real life is really busy. Being busy is a well-known and hard-earned fact that parents are fully aware of, another is the amount of unsolicited opinion and judgement that can be placed upon their already burdened and tired shoulders. These opinions start from the moment your pregnancy is announced - how you give birth to how, where and when you feed, to battles over working or not working.

I see so much doubt in parents. I see it in their eyes and in their faces - the worry 'am I doing enough' or 'am I doing too much'. This is where the science of understanding and why we behave the way we do interests me so much. The reason parenting draws such judgement is that people think that 'you are doing it all wrong'. The real reason for this is down to procedural memory. These are the ways of doing things that you have learned from a very early stage, some of it is so ingrained in you, you might not even question that how you think about x, y or z is only a belief system as this was how it was done in your family.

These prescriptive norms create strong ideas of how you 'should' parent so when another parent does it differently to you it can create a strong reaction. From your mother, to the lollipop lady, your boss, your friends, there's no need to go on. The book aims to help you unravel these entrenched belief systems that are wired in your brain so anything different, not only feels wrong but can feel deeply uncomfortable. This often causes issues in differing parenting styles as each couple has a sense of how to discipline or dress their child. When you are sleep-deprived and all the plates of your life have to keep spinning, your partner putting the nappy on the 'wrong way' will press all your buttons.

It is these threads in our schemas of how things 'should' be that span the length and breadth of your life from the very beginning to how it impacts your present day life and, in turn, if left unchecked, will infiltrate your future. I hope the book provides insight that gives the space to step back and see if the threads have become like my Christmas lights look every year after I take them down. When we reflect, we really can see things as they are and only then can we take steps to make more effective changes with the right tools.

Understanding yourself is the first part, then putting it into action is where the quality and everyday experience that is your life begins to flourish and change. What I mean by this is that I understand how busy people are, I had no intention of adding to your sense of having to do more, or be more as everyone does enough and has had enough.

Unrealistic expectations married with too many 'to-dos' and what people feel they 'should' be doing is not the answer you are looking for. So, I thought I can ask the questions, and you provide the answers.

The 'how' to me has always been the top priority. That's what people are searching for, no-nonsense, clear, step-by-step techniques that actually work. How to enjoy parenthood, how to change that old fight with your sibling, how to manage the stress of work better, how to be more compassionate and kinder to yourself, rather than having the eternal critic on the loop in your brain. The answers to the questions of who you are asked throughout the book will provide you hopefully with 'ah ha' moments of 'that's why I react the way I do with my dad'. A real sense of purpose can come from seeing things as they are, and not from how we wish them to be. This understanding can let you draw a line in the sand and start afresh.

Often in psychology the advice is simple with people saying 'that's just common sense', and while I agree, common sense isn't as common or easy to put into practice.

I encourage you to try and fail and try again. With change comes challenge and the tenacity that is asked of you for real sustainable change is substantial. However, the energy required to stay the same, to stay stuck, asks for the same level of commitment and energy. You choose.

Nowadays, it seems so many of us feel stressed, when asked 'how are you?', the badge of busy is always on. If we look to the basic definition of stress it is when the demand exceeds your abilities. Maybe this is where the problem lies in that it is not our abilities that fail us but the demands that we place upon ourselves internally and externally as we try to navigate the ever- changing rule book that is life. You can be sure that as soon as you have a handle on one situation or relationship it will change.

As adults I feel this may have thrown us, as we incorrectly perceived that we would have figured it all out by now and that for some reason things would become easier or at least more certain. The only thing you can be certain of is that things will keep changing. Most of us try to bolt out of childhood, yearning, as my three-year-old tells me with great force, to 'do it myself'. The truth of doing it all yourself, making all the decisions and all the choices can feel overwhelming.

The grounded hope of the book is one of optimism. By reflecting and getting to know yourself, patterns of behaviour begin to make themselves clear. Certain people, relationships, places and situations that trigger and elicit strong emotions and reactions, some good, some bad and some ugly. Insight forces us to see, and once certain patterns are seen it is so useful that we can't un-see them, insecurities in your romantic relationship may become clear in your understanding of your attachment style long-learned in your formative years. This is positive though, as adults we can earn a secure attachment style changing how we interact from this point on. My hope is that by reading the book you come away armed and ready and eager to start developing and changing the aspects of yourself that you would like to be different. To be more content, more peaceful, if even for more moments. Taking 15 breaths is a one-minute meditation. This is not only do-able but a lovely practice to put into your busy schedule.

I've always been keenly interested in the psychology of people, why we behave the way we do and, what really makes you yourself. Through my work and meeting with so many people, themes have emerged. Every story is different, no two alike, but the same worries and fears plague us all. I wish people knew this, as the faces that often sit in front of me may not have revealed their inner private selves once outside my door. The intent of the book is to cultivate your strengths, as we all have our weaknesses. They are too easy to focus upon. I wanted the book to improve the quality of people's lives. Being overwhelmed can feel like drowning quietly, often unbeknownst to even your closest relationships. When I'd ask, 'what would you like to achieve?' time and time again I was told 'peace of mind'.

The gap I feel for many is widening too much and the feeling of 'how can I make that jump' from 'where I am now' to 'where I want to be' is filled with fear and frustration for so many, a double F. Unrealistic expectations in every relationship from being the perfect parent, to the perfect spouse, the friend who can do it all to the work colleague of the year, pulls tighter and tighter around our necks and leaves many feeling like there isn't enough air to breathe, leaving them tight-chested and unsure of how to start.

The Secret Lives of Adults is about you and who you are in the seven most important relationships in your life. You may have more lives or you may have less. The book starts with the most important relationship of all and that is the one with yourself and from this solid foundation you can build and flourish within all your ever-changing lives as an adult.

The Secret Lives of Adults is published by Gill Books, priced €16.99

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