Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The Curse of Pollyanna

Lately, I seem to get a lot of phone calls from depressed and miserable friends. I'm not sure whether this is just due to the fact that they know I am trapped on a mountain and can't run away, or whether it is because they want me to cheer them up. Possibly the answer is a combination of both things at once.

You see, I suffer from a Pollyanna like state of always trying to look on the cheerful side. I can't bear feeling unhappy and in addition I am an inveterate 'fixer upper'. If something is broken I want to put it right. My friends know this and will ring me when the world feels overwhelming and get me to put it in perspective for them, or I assume that is what they want me to do. Now of course this is lovely, and flattering in a way but listening to one monologue on the misery of life after another is draining. Ironically, this constant stream of people wanting me to cheer them up can get me down a little. It is exhausting being everybody's Pollyanna.

To illustrate two examples at the moment. I have a friend who is a very successful artist, but like all artists I know, she has an ambigious desire to see her work sell but a complete inability to actually sell it herself. Consequently she spends the time bemoaning the fact that the Cork Street Gallery that she sells at won't push her work hard enough, but if somebody came up to her and said 'Can I buy 3 of your paintings please' there is a good chance she would say 'No' and then run away and hide.

I can understand the opposing forces that influence her, and none of it is helped by the fact that she is in the throes of post natal depression. The difficulty is that there are only so many times I can repeat the same mantras to her and if she acts on none of them then I start feeling like Sisyphus and his rock. My will to help evaporates and I dread the phone call. I'm not sure that that doesn't make me a terrible person.

The second example is more local. A girl (well, woman really since she is nearly 40) who lives nearby is about to have her second child and once again the father has left the scene. This can't be easy, though it was very much her choice to have the baby which I think she wanted more than the father. She frequently rings me, or invites me over to supper, and will tell me for hours of how badly the world has treated her, how unkind everyone is to her. In her world she is Cinderella, surrounded by evil relations and courtiers trying to thwart her from her happy ever after. I try and be sympathetic to this as it can't be easy being in her situation. But secretly, I can't help but feel that that attitude achieves absolutely NOTHING to change her life.

I mean, if everything is always somebody else's fault, then you never take responsibility for anything yourself. I do believe that ultimately our own happiness rests on ourselves, not everyone around us. If you start out optimistically and are responsible for your own life, then you can control how you react to whatever life throws at you. Even if you start out depressed then I believe you can force a fixed grin onto your face, and bully yourself out of the worst of it, with your friends there to cheer you on. It is interesting to consider that the people who are happy inevitably make you feel a little happier. Happiness can be as contagious as the winter flu. So, if you take care of you feeling happy, then those around you are likely to be happier, which in turn will make you feel happy. I know that's simplistic but it is also true the majority of the time.

However, if nothing is your own fault then it seems that the general consensus is that you shouldn't be expected to do anything about it. Somebody else should come and pick you up, dust you off and wave a magic wand over you. I don't think life works like that at all; in fact, it's a recipe for disaster.

So, I sit and listen, occasionally I will make some Pollyannaish suggestion about how she could break the cycle, walk away from the baggage and detritus of everybody else letting her down and start afresh in her head. Stop the cycle of saying 'if only they would...' or 'if only I had' and instead take charge of her own life. Be the one who is responsible for her own happiness, rather than hold the rest of the world responsible for her life. I try to put it more kindly than this of course.

I recently read a book called 'The seven habits of effective people'. Excluding the tiresome Americanisms of it, there are some interesting points. First habit: Be proactive. You are responsible for your life and you can control how you approach it (not necessarily what happens in it, but how you react to it). Abandon the past and just look forwards. Don't blame the past, and those around you for what happens to you tomorrow.

There is a lot to be said for this but it is a point that most people seem incapable of absorbing. If you suggest to somebody that they forget the past and start afresh their instant response is 'Oh, I couldn't do that - I mean, my past won't let me' or words to that effect. We cling to what has happened to us, rather than what could happen. It seems to dictate everything we do. So, the artist friend will say 'I've never been able to sell my own work so I couldn't start now'. She never wonders whether perhaps she could if she wanted to. That what happened yesterday doesn't have to repeat itself every day unless she wants it to. In fact, I think that she doesn't like the idea that she could take control of things - if she did do that then she would have to be responsible. God, I'm such a bitch to feel this way.

What is particularly noticeable about these phone calls is that they NEVER ask me a single thing about me. Not how I am, where I am, whether I am happy, sad, insane etc etc. They just give a sigh of relief that I have answered the phone and start in on the free therapy session. This can stop the phone call feeling like a friendship, and make me feel more like the official 'Pollyanna helpline'. I know that this is part of what friendship is, but endlessly repeated you start wondering if it is a two way friendship. All else aside, if they only ring when they are depressed, and never when they are happy, then you end up with a one sided view of them.

So, that is the curse of being Pollyanna. I am now going to take my own advice and cheer myself up by taking the Loyal Hound and the Toboggan out. There isn't much that that can't fix. Thanks for listening.....


Home Office Mum said...

I think you sound incredibly kind and long suffering. I agree wholeheartedly with the be proactive bit. I know I'm good at having a whinge (particularly when talking to my family) but I like to believe that I listen to their whinges too. Perhaps you need to try and out whinge them, then they won't feel like calling anymore?

justme said...

I love this post. I hope it was not inspired by my self pitying drivel last night on my blog! Good job I dont have your phone number!!Although, actually, when I feel miserable my instinct is NOT to talk about it and I prefer to ring people when I am happy. The blog is one of my ways of dealing with feeling down.
Interesting what you say about getting a one sided of people sometimes. I know I tend to blog more when I am miserable and do sometimes wonder if I come across there as a pathetic, depressed and miserable individual, where as I don't really think I AM those things on the whole.
It's lovely that you are such a support for your friends, but sad if they don't listen to your occasional woes and moans too. It is so easy to fall into set patterns of behavior!
In my work, I deal with people with problems all the time. One of the things I say a lot, is that although you cannot always control what happens to you in life, and life is NOT fair, you CAN choose how you deal with those things. I should maybe take my own advice!

Welsh Girl said...

I should just say that this wasn't a rant at all of us in the ether having a rant, because that is suprisingly two way! It's just something I've noticed, that seems to be part of my life. I think it may be because I don't have children, so am veiwed as having more time, and fewer burdens, both of which might be true!

That said, thanks Home office Mum for the kind words - I like the idea of 'out whingeing'. Justme - not inspired AT ALL by you so don't get that thought into your head! I think they were coincidental blogs!

bevchen said...

I am absolutely terrible at being optimistic, but the only person I whinge to is my boyfriend. Which probably makes me a terrible girlfriend to be honest, but at least my friends still like me...

notSupermum said...

Hmmm, I know what you mean. I often have phone conversations where I only say 'hello, how are you?' and 'speak to you soon'. the rest is just me listening to them.

katyboo1 said...

It's tough when this happens. I had a few friends like this and it took me a long time to deal with them. Part of me wanted to feel 'kind' and 'good', and listening to them let me do that. Then I realised that whenever I spoke to them I felt really drained, and that just like you say, they didn't really listen to me and my problems.

Eventually I had to 'let them go' and it wasn't easy. It was however a relief. I don't think it's bitchy at all by the way. It's honest. You're being honest about how you feel, which is fine. You're not hurting them, which is fine. You are a good person.

You know. I used to live with an addict. Because of him I got around some 12 step rooms for a long while. One of the things that helped me to think and be proactive about my life and take responsibility was the serenity prayer people say in meetings.

'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.'

It may help.

Welsh Girl said...

Bevchen - isn't that what boyfriends are for????
Not Supermum - thanks for dropping by. I'm glad it's not just me stuck at the end of the phone.
Katyboo - When I think about 'cutting the cord' I love the idea of not being the telephonic dumping ground but I feel very guilty at the thought of doing the deed. With one of them it is impossible as I am Godparent to one of her children. Trapped! Perhaps that's where the prayer comes in.

Anonymous said...

Hi Welsh Girl,

Have just got back and getting up-to-date with your blog.

I think that I have the same set of friends as you. When I phone them, the moment they hear my voice they start on & on & on ……… In the end all the things that I wanted to tell them have gone right out of my head. I was reading the part of your page out to my husband where you said they NEVER ask about you. He said ‘that’s just like a few of your ‘me–me–me’ friends’. It’s just as though I only wanted to ring to hear them talking, not for any reason of my own. Kayboo1 is so right, these friends are so draining – but you keep on smiling!

Thanks for listening to MY rant.
Wendy (Wales)

bevchen said...

Well I think that's what boyfriends are for... not sure he agrres mind ;-)

Welsh Girl said...

Hi there Wendy - where have you been?? Come and rant to me anytime you like!

Bevchen - if I had a boyfriend, I'd rant to him!

Mrs Jones said...

Thinking of the 12 step serenity poem, there's another which may be more appropriate:

"May those who love us, love us
and those that don't love us,
May God turn their hearts,
and if He can not turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles
so we may know them by their limp"

Welsh Girl said...

Mrs Jones - that's great! I shall look out for limping people from now one...

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