and now if you would kindly remove your clothing

“When you lose your capacity to care what other people think, you’ve lost your ability to connect. But when you’re defined by it, you’ve lost your ability to be vulnerable.” Brené Brown

Living fully and existing freely matters to all but these are often desirable states rarely occupied. Many times we refuse to be the first to say “I love you” fearful of heartbreak or we pretend everything is easy peasy lemon squeezy instead of confronting conflict from others. Often the warmth we crave from another we find more easily generated within the confines of a hibernation cave, a dwelling constructed of blankets, Netflix and comfort food where life can be put on hold for a time and there is no great risk, no daring taken. It is easier to hold back and remain quiet when stress frays our happiness and we are so obsessively concerned with being liked and wanted that we will frequently crop out the flaws in our personality and filter ourselves to attract and look like what we think others want us to be. It is a difficult thing for a person to allow another to love them for who they truly are if they do not know and love themselves, and it is more so difficult to try be yourself when open honest conversations within yourself and others are avoided. Perceived control over our being in the world removes our ability to be truly vulnerable. People occupy two places within themselves, self-inhibition and self-expression. We are pushed into inhibition from fear of rejection, it is scary confronting inner failings, accepting when we disappoint and even accepting fully our successes. Inhibition displays itself as discontent, a holding back when around others, limiting who we are and clinging to changeable fads in a bid to remain relevant. When we free ourselves to be and express fully there is a lingering sense of sureness, security in the base of one’s identity is consistently present, with occasional wavering and adaptability, and a real self is projected into the real world, no longer based on the projections of others onto us. It is difficult contending with a culture driven by self and weaving vulnerable living into a world of self-sufficiency is a frightening concept.

“How are things in the ole heart?”
“Ehhhhhh….”
*Cue sleight of hand magic trick/verbal display of prowess by regurgitating comically developed tales and initiation of banter for successful avoidance of awkward intense interpersonal connection*
A scenario we all know well, the provocative questioning of a concerned friend desiring to know the truth. It’s invasive and difficult and not hardwired into our skill set to naturally respond with ease. It is red hot discomfort where the thought of sharing something personal and conversing honestly causes us to pedal through a crazy number of thoughts and internal arguements until what remains is a dazed and confused, wooly headed person in an awkwardly quiet conversation. If you are in any way skilled at shifting the spotlight of the conversation elsewhere it can generally be avoidable. However, sharing with others is an essential, and ultimately enjoyable, part of life and not because it procures a human superglue shot to our broken parts nor as a security blanket to assuage insecurities.  Choosing openness and being vulnerable lets us stop viewing others opinions as a measuring stick for our worthiness and meaning.

Conversing with others, imparting ‘secrets’ and seeking personal advice is a fundamental skill that warrents investigation and practice over time. Wariness and wisdom should both be enacted when operating on this level in order to avoid feeling over-exposed and emotionally raw/abused. Balance is about striking the right sort of guardedness while ensuring we don’t resort to total hiding of our true self behind masks. Revelation is a gradual process and very individualised particular to the people you are with, it is always important to set discernable boundaries. A good mindset to have is honesty with all and vulnerability with some, that will result in thought led vulnerability rather than blunt exposure. Lean into the discomfort of being with others, of connecting and relating, of awkward moments and happy firsts. It is a funny one really we often would think admission of failure or verbalising struggle comes from making ourselves inferior but in fact successful vulnerability requires a totality in self-acceptance, an assuredness in one’s own strength and a fixed agreement with the self that the result is something that can be handled. That hardly seems weak to me. I love asking questions a lot hoping always that people will find the freedom to chatter incessantly of their brain turnings to me, to express concepts of their character and values they hold and then I can meet them in turn to engender bonding and closeness. What a wonderful declaration of love to share truths and thoughts with another.

Human connection is unravelled by fear and shame, these both regularly tell me either ‘I’m not enough’ or ‘I am too much’. Fear can be intensely controlling, we are afraid to appear weak or needy. This is a dangerous and diminutive mindset to hold, look to any person in your life and what do you think when you see them opening up and seeking help? We see courage, respect at the emotional risk taken and are awed by the display of their capacity for emotional intelligence. Realigning our perception involves letting ourselves be seen to inhabit honesty. Viewing the vulnerable part of ourselves as the birthplace of innovative thinking leading to adaptability, creativity making us new and teaching appropriate responses to change, gives us a framework to cope with difficulty and above all else facilitates healthy processing. Undoubtedly we will all experience a vulnerability hangover at some point or another. The dull ache and spiking paranoia lurking on the edges of our recollections is familiar. It feels something like finding yourself naked with another person for the first time, sudden overwhelming doubt and reeling questions to which the brain supplies imagined scenarios of ridiculously humiliating proportions one unfolding maliciously upon the other. It comes from a part of ourselves that works in response to engineer safety and control. Combatting it requires acknowledging any potential shame and the fear of rejection we feel, not a denial of it’s presence or fearful ignorance but a choosing to deviate from it’s suggestions.

Shame inhibits us from truly open, vulnerable conversations and also from even confronting and getting to know ourselves. When you engage with honesty you leave feeling a little exposed and a little on edge but this is how you know you have let go of the control, freely giving to others in an authentic way. Shame is that gremlin that causes you to halt, encourages you to not open the door to the party because ‘nobody wants you there anyway’, the voice of unreason, the fear bringer that holds evidence for your failings/lackings in front of you. Who is this critic but ourselves? I tell myself I am a mistake, I punish myself for not living up to expectations I set. Shame robs us of our assurance and worth. To combat this we need to re-contextualise our experiences, change our understanding of who we are and how we are particularly in a world of mass insecurity.  The online community has no perimeters and there can be a personal price to public representation, while we have more freedom for self-expression we live by growing numbers of methods of limitation. We have created a marketplace for expression attempts. Shaming has become an industry, while affirmation is a hot commodity that is desperately sought through careful manipulation, selling and filtering.

It is easy to fall into the trap of false vulnerability. A cultural abuse of the vulnerability gap in order to affirm the individualisation of people that ends up leading to yet another platform of comparison i.e. unworthiness felt over the lack of difficulty in our lives or a feeling that we should suffer more to be better people. Public platforms are a powerful way to breed honest living but it can be easy to start over-sharing for self-fulfillment rather than out of integrity and to give support. This is recognisable where a person has a hidden agenda when sharing and presents itself as over-exposure or usually accompanies a shock factor detail in their revelation. I am no stranger to this  I can recall key times in my life where I have strategically revealed certain happenings unnecessarily in order to engineer a particular reaction, to shape my image a certain way or to catch the attention of specific individuals. When really what I should be trying to do is share more intimately and wisely, to be honest and upfront but not deeply revelatory which is often more about my self-betterment than I let on. True vulnerablity is not always so admirable, nor easily done and does not always leave the vulnerable one in a heroic light. Learning the necessity of timely and essential revelation is a skill that we hone as we go through life, the practice of reserved self-disclosure. For me finding myself opening up to the idea of conversing honestly with God and crossing that awkward doubt boundary of “I feel a bit stupid talking about my problems to the air” enabled me to not only have more confidence opening up to people but to see clearly where I was only willing to use my vulnerability for my gain. God, being a mostly silent listening ear, gave me an objective viewpoint on how I was representing myself and what my actions hoped to consequence and taught me more about what true authenticity really looks like. After all it is rather difficult to manipulate any sort of reputation or gain status from a spiritual being.

The very core of our identities is formed on the basis of truths we hold about our way of being in the world, moral codes and personal belief systems. Seeking to know and be known by others involves many actions and happenings but the fundamental aspect of connection is formed on a basis of sharing, a vulnerable extension of truths about ourselves and a reciprocal receiving of the truths of others.  Can you allow others to see the truth you hold to about yourself if you can’t even face yourself? The secret to being able to fully and freely be with others is to fully and freely be with your own self. Self-expression is a controlled application of your identity therefore it would make sense to get to know yourself. What we want to avoid is a Patrick Star mindset of surface awareness, where he himself expresses  “The inner machinations of my mind are an enigma”. Encouraging openness requires us to return to a valuing of compassion, an honouring of self-removed empathy and motivation simply to better the other. A life is not well lived if it is lived without making a mistake or taking a wrong turn in one’s path, humans have the capacity to utilise regret and choose to wilfully respond to shame and error in order to better their experiences for themselves and others. We will never be able to let go fully of the part of ourselves that is anxious, that feels a stab of fear when laying out the cards on the table, that is a tad insecure in their sharing with another but we have the clarity and the ability to accept this part of ourselves and live, choose, speak regardless. Insecurities and fear do not dictate how we live they simply have to be moulded into allowing us to live. How freeing it can be to embrace failure. Achieve loss, accept error and learn from the implications of these.

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Friends are like root vegetables….if you consume them they will perish

Do we value friendship in the manner it deserves, do we truly comprehend the greatness that is the freedom we have in generating connection with other people in this world in such a global way? When we stand barefoot in trepidation of the oncoming tide of a great night-darkened ocean or find ourselves lost in an endless forest of aged trees caught in the still point, we are often hit with the realisation of the smallness of life and the urgency of crafting a fully lived life. It is a great thing to reflect on these things that we attach such worth to, that push us to live, to conduct a ‘happiness stock take’.  The joy bringers of life are the topics I shall return to writing with as, anyone who knows me can attest to, the personhood states of joy and happiness occupy my thoughts regularly. We live in a golden age of enlightenment, a generation of people with social, global and personal growth and development at the cornerstone of our daily lives, and I believe in the relevance of examining these things and reflecting on how they can be re-imagined to bring ourselves to a stronger position of understanding and awareness. I shall begin with a look at, in my opinion, one of the best parts of being human-friendship with others. Success is determined by the levels to which we can achieve and the amount we can amass but maybe the value system of society should consider an alternative definition of success, one that is built on the living in the intangible happiness.

The problem with friendship is as a subjective area we don’t know how to measure it’s value in relation to other countable offerings. What are the properties of a sustainable, enriching and affirming friendship and what level of importance do we place on making friends as opposed to say achieving a college degree? Pursuing friendship is an act we engage in from childhood, from the first time we knock confidently on our neighbour’s door dying for our friend to be allowed out to play to the tentative suggestion of developing secret handshakes and building forts with our grownup friends. Friends allow us to express our ridiculous nature, amplify it and as you get older this becomes infinitely more precious in the context of the growing awareness of the negative aspects of the world. For me wasting time with friends doing nothing is not wasting time at all because you get to be your total idiotic self and laugh so hard you nearly pee and that is acceptance, a total mental, spiritual and physical being with someone that is like cracking your neck, necessary and sort of weird, socially disturbing at times and satisfying.

“Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another…what! You too? I thought that no one but myself…” CS Lewis. Is friendship sparked at the introduction when you lock eyes, exchange a knowing look and from there it has been unspokenly agreed upon that you are now in cahoots? Or when you have spent enough accepted time with a person that warrants a level of comfort where one person can do very human, gross bodily things around the other and it is a cause for laughter rather than disgust? I am talking about simple happenings, those moments when awkward noisy/smelly habits become an endearing quality and a cause for much laughter and teasing. The term friendship can be taken as loosely or as deeply as the nature of your own particular character demands, different levels of relating and self-expression desire different levels of connection with a person to term them a friend. When you truly desire lifelong friendship you begin an evolving dance of interactions and purposes and the glue that holds it all will be the reaching of a place where self-disclosure is brought to the table. DOO DOO DOO it’s the magical potion of vulnerability and reciprocity- the act of slowly giving out key personal information and having likewise returned in order to learn more intimately the nature of the other’s character and open yourself up to accepting them and being accepted. There is a mutual give and take and this is the greatest risk one can enact with another, it will at times leave you bewildered and possibly betrayed but without attempting intimacy to bind you then all you are left with is multitudes of half formed surface aquaintance-ships. Personally I get paralysed with fear when I consider trying to make friends at say a party of people I only peripherally know. It’s usually a collection of impressive, beautiful funny aliens and I have to make a choice to swallow the panic I feel, blunder in enacting some kind of alternative dance move and establish a connection by being myself and being interested in learning all the beautiful curiosities that make them them.

The act of friendship is a process of reciprocal goodwill, an undertaking of relating to and wanting what is good for the sake of another. This does not mean that the loss of self-care is necessary for a true friendship, loving yourself comes first before being able to love others but it is an active process that allows for the building up a person to be the best they can be and helping them overcome problems when they arise in their character and life. Having another person there to ‘try’ and ‘test’ different quirks and forms of self-expression with will lead to a more fulfilled representation of what it is to be in the world and a firmer solid worked out identity basis. A friend should be unafraid to challenge you, should care for you and desire to see your happiness achieved, can enter into judgement with you not from a critical place but simply a desire to encourage, build and grow with you living in togetherness.

So as with everything in life there are barriers. I firmly believe a root of the vast majority of personal issues comes from a soul level desire to be fully known by others yet it is matched by deep fear of being fully known because extending trust is a risky business. From this springs the fears that prohibit true friendship: fear of rejection, commitment, vulnerability. It’s a dizzying cliff edge embarking in authentic friendship with others and letting them in not only on the fun, kooky parts but also the struggles, the pains and the insecurities. Being select about whom you step onto the vulnerability path with is essential but locking your heart away from ever trusting anyone out of fear or shame will only give power to the negative self-doubts held about personal worth.

Loneliness is the enemy of the happy self. I do not mean an active chosen solitude or being an introvert but rather alienation, lack of connection. It occurs when there is a visible or felt difference between what level of interpersonal connection and affection one desires and one actually gets. An edge of fear of rejection springs awake when opening your heart to others is considered. Overcoming that anxiety comes the more you realise the worth of yourself being under the power of others opinion is imagined and you can have happiness in your alone self without feeling lonely. At some point you need to make a choice to remain forever bound by the fear of ‘what if?’ or trust in faith that you can accept a truth about who you are and live freely in that regardless of how many people approve of you. If they do not love us as much as we want are we going to choose to accept that we are not worthy, does that affirm our shame, that we are at our core unlovable? In the past I chose the route of self-sabotage, pushing people away because I assumed I was a burden to them, intolerable and deserved my loneliness. Now I choose differently I choose to align my worth with what I have learned from Jesus’ teachings and I try to live fully with people. That because of His death I no longer have to strive, berate and shame myself into a good character, Jesus finds my weirdness endearing and my character finds itself seeking to love others, including myself, like He loves. I, in accepting this truth of His sacrifice solely making me good, am good, although flawed. At the end of the day if people have negative opinions of my weirdness I have a freedom choice I am no longer enslaved to finding my truth of self in other people’s opinions.

One of my personal favourite things in the world is potential. I love the unspoken moment when nothing has been decided but all can be and you are sitting on the brink of a chaotic maelstrom of possibilities and stretching out before you is numerous timelines all directly influenced by what will happen. It’s a moment of electricity and boundaryless outcome and the best occurrence of these is within human relationship. That acute feeling of there being opportunity for madness to occur and within this space of existing potential between people lies a transformative power of epic proportions that can significantly alter and improve the life and personhood of someone. For groups of men and women friendships can look different. Looking at men and their changing social role and the impact this has had will give an indicator of the remarkable power of friendship. The understanding of traditional male relationships are changing in a positive manner as the concept of masculinity and an awareness of the necessity of male sharing becomes tantamount to healthful living. Men are pushing to take the friendship level past the surface stereotype to engender togetherness, encourage communication, challenge and emotional vulnerability, traditionally a weakness in ‘being a man’ but that is an identity armour society has long trapped them in. The epitome looked for is the bromance, a blend of brotherhood and romance in a way that takes the level of friendship to a more intimate and supportive level of personal betterment. A prohibition of vulnerability and intimacy, which was for so long  on a mass social scale perceived as inherently feminine traits, limited the levels to which a bromance could reach and inhibited the positive affect male friendships could have. Empowering people to understand the physical and mental transformative benefits friendship can have is key.

Let us look at the Hierarchy of Needs, a pyramid shaped system of fulfilment designed to meet all of human need in the correct order to achieve self-actualisation.  If we are honest with ourselves about what is the most empowering, motivating factors in life they would be love and acceptance. Love takes many forms, romantic, familial, spiritual and friendship but due to organisational powers, mass media and the global consciousness that create and cultivate culture our needs can be twisted, characterised by unattainable standards that drive us all to madness in seeking. An unrealistic, fantasised, romantic relationship expectation forming the base of our identity. I dearly want to be loved and love someone and a lot of the time that is a stronger desire than generating friendships. It is the way we are, we have a need inside that demands to be felt. That does not mean the value we place on this need, with the intellectual capacity we have for making a choice that is not dictated by feeling alone, should be greater than the value we place on experiencing friendships.  So while there is a good enough valuing of activities that lend to successful societal functioning these are often underwritten and undervalued in the rosy cheeked, heartwarming glow of the romantic love or sexual desire tier. We have been conditioned to some extent to see the mantra of “I am desirable, I am pursued” as the optimum way to know your identity is powerful and acceptable. Yet romantic or sexual affirmation is not the foundational aspect to relationship, friendship is and if you cut friendships because you are too caught up in a romantic bubble or you compromise on having friendship with your chosen partner because an easy physical satisfaction is so irresistible and more readily available then you are losing the backbone to long standing person-to-person interconnectedness. If the building of relationship is not upon an assured ability to be friends with one another and an equality of intellectual, spiritual and physical connections the potential of the relationship will be impeded particularly if it’s entered into as a means to fix personal insecurities or make one feel good about ones self. When the woo and frivolity of the honeymoon period dies down, if a natural friendship status quo has not been established the next part of relationship will be extremely tough, possibly boring and not emotionally fulfilling. You see friendship is a double agent, it should compliment, it should not compete. What I am trying to establish is that we need to re-prioritise and maybe remind ourselves of those friendships we have neglected in the face of other pursuits. The two forms of connectedness should not be mutually exclusive, friendship will keep you together when the realisation of the choice to love becomes a present thing.

The entirety of our existence is one long series of exposures to institutions and our ability to interpret the world around us through powerful learned filters and the role of other people should be an institution that is highly valued and hold a bigger position in our lives than we afford it in light of amassing material comforts or reputation. I love the opportunity to sit and be in the presence of people who give me a sense of peace to be with. It is fascinating to watch the dawn of realisations, the dancing of creative responding and ease playing across their face and I, a part of and partner in this galaxy of friendship, a place where inhibitions cease and excitement can spur passionate debate and reminiscing, shared stories and energies and self analysis.  I want to turn to someone, look upon them and see how together we move on tracks of never-ending light. Being a good friend and having good friends is to me a worthy thing to value in life, but loving others and knowing them comes only after loving and knowing ourselves.  It is a delightful opportunity to hand happiness to others to give them moments where they forget the inner monologue of self-doubt that can assail them and allow them to do the same. The ability to derive joy from our experiences and connections is unique and is an uncountable value in human life. Let us not spend our lives mired in measuring the mundane, instead let’s look to the transformational aspects of living and the enriching people we are surrounded by. That joyful purpose of mattering to others and them mattering to you, it is a good thing to look for in life.

I wish to be a sex symbol the trouble is…

We live in a world that is obsessed with sex and there is no use pretending we don’t all enjoy it somewhat. However, we do need to be honest about increasing our awareness of the detrimental affects of this ‘sexual awakening’ as well as the beneficial. Confession time: I like sexy people. I find certain guys sexually attractive and I would hope that somebody would feel that way about me someday but there is a distinct difference between being a sexually attractive person and being an object of sexual desire. ‘Sex sells’; we have all heard that phrase before, basically sex is a tool utilised beyond any other means in the media world in order to garner attention. It is a pretty basic human desire, we live in a world that encourages owning your sexual identity and being liberal about sex. Unfortunately we are also all living with acceptance of media that is filled with sexual objectification and we have been conditioned to think this is normal or we are unable to differentiate between what is simply sexual and what is sexually objectifying. The power of mass media is so great that we are daily exposed to sexual objectification, it infiltrates our speech and thinking and we can be completely unaware of it as it often comes masked in the guise of media representation that is forward thinking and encouraging to the sexual expression of youth with the intent of advancing individual self-affirmation. The sexual objectification of today is more subtle and hidden but when we do see it we can fear speaking out against it because feminism is such a touchy subject and nobody wants to be that crazy person that must make a political statement about everything or the stereotypical Christian preaching that sex is wrong. 

What is sexual objectification? It is a relational process or behavioural tendency to consciously or subconsciously treat a person like or assume them to be a sexual object, one that serves or meets the sexual pleasure of another. The purpose of an object is to fit the need of the subject. When we reduce a person down to an object to fulfil our own sexual satisfaction we devalue them as a fully developed human with their own wants, beliefs and identity.  A subject, usually men, acts and an object, often women, are acted on. The object is always subordinate and under the power of the subject. As we are surrounded by rampant sexual imagery on a daily basis it is difficult to ascertain if an image is objectifying or simply sexy, in other words is what we are seeing or saying creating an inequality in how we interpret and respond to the physical presence of another or is it simply a recognition of another’s sexuality? Societal progression dictates that openness and individualised thinking will increase exponentially and sexual liberation, one of the greatest leaps forward we have made, has given rise to a hyper sexualisation of our daily lives. Television shows rarely have no nudity, music has sexually explicit lyrics and magazines frequently feature sexual nuances. Media plays the most active role in our lives, young people are continuously engaging with the online world which leaves them open to a flooding of cognitive thought processes and encouragement of behavioural change through the normalisation of  sex and identity exploration.

I recently watched my first TED video. The video  ‘The Sexy Lie’, discussed what it is and how we can be aware of it and tackle it. We live under a social narrative that spreads the false belief that empowerment is achieved through the cultivation of the body as a specific sexual object and utilising this to provoke a reaction within someone. How can we discern sexually objectifying media? We need to look at the intent of what we are seeing and whether there is dominance or dehumanising of a person involved. If we are presented with images that  shows a particular body part of a person as representative of their entire sexual being, if the sexualised person is standing in for an object,  if the purpose of the image is to encourage or agree with the violation of a person’s body without their consent or if the image suggests that the sexuality of a person is their defining identity or characteristic then it is sexually objectifying. The prevalence of women being seen as sexual items in social media, and displaying their bodies in an attempt to obtain body confidence by appealing to a man’s sexual power, is not impeding but encouraging sexism, domestic violence and sexual assault. The majority of this imagery is aimed at men, the subtext of which is selling them their role as sexual subjects and affirming their power in a barely perceptive way. Men are subconsciously told they are the judge of women, sexual appetite is a large part of who they are and they need to take command and feed it. For women, the message is of our value, of how we can find our ‘sexy’ and that our worth is wrapped up in the cultivation of a perfect physical tool to attract a man.  Wrongfully sexualised culture has created extremes in how we interpret ourselves, either our physical bodies are being used to excuse behaviour on the part of others that is derogatory saying we provoke rape culture by being too tempting or we are told we have to embrace our sexuality and express total comfort with being interpreted in a sexual way that makes our physical presence eclipse our other qualities and shames us if we don’t. But we really don’t quite understand what sexy is.  

Sexual objectification has seeped into our lives under the guise of sexual freedom. Influential people like Miley Cyrus tell us that we have to grab our youth and embrace our sexuality in explicit and provocative ways but she is wrong in her understanding of what that means. For example her stage performances take people and equate them to animals by masking their faces in giant animal heads and getting them to display their nearly naked bodies in a manner that is entirely built for sexual satisfaction. Her message is to emulate wild living free of the shackles of societal expectation and to stand unashamed of yourself through sexual madness and other fun crazy stuff but she is bound to this limited view of sexiness as being something purely physical that is simply an uncontrollable urge to be expressed. She means to provoke an animalistic reaction in her viewers, but she has limited herself and is conflating overt sexuality with sexual oppression. I am going to jump aboard the anti-Blurred Lines wagon here simply because it is a perfect example of how we are often too late to realise the infiltration of destructive sexualised media in our lives. Sexually aggressive lyrics aside, the music video for this song is quite obviously degrading and has gotten lost somewhere between being humorous, attractive and dangerous. It has gone past the lines of encouraging joking at traditional gender roles and into an area that says its ok to display naked women in a submissive position, giving power to men to use them as a sexual plaything in order to ‘free’ their wild side. The intent of the singers may be in fun, but the intent of the few when different to the message received by the many overrides their personal meaning because of the global implication of putting this dehumanising, sexually aggressive message into the world. Some people may think it’s only harmless, that these singers are praising women by letting them be openly naked and overtly sexual and free but they are truly not looking at the wider implications of a viral video that has twelve year olds singing about how consent is a grey area. These women are not proudly displaying their bodies and asserting authority they are being told that a man does not necessarily need verbal consent to have his way with her and women should allow this. Being exposed to images that tell us that we can tread lightly upon the sexual consent line acts upon the subconscious, it filters into our mindset and gives us a higher tolerance for sexual aggression and dominance.

The problem with this mentality of seeing the body, and people, as tools which are cultivated and exposed in order to illicit pleasure is that it sets unrealistic body standards, high expectations of sex and a desensitising to violence. Fantasy overtakes reality and the understanding of a male/female relationship in any context becomes subject to expectation and misinterpretation. It encourages us to see the body of the opposite sex in ways that carry double meaning. A woman’s body is deliberately displayed in advertising emphasising particular body parts; the legs, the back, the knees-all of these when focused as a separate part of the whole become hyper sexualised. Suddenly we become conditioned to interpret random parts of a woman’s body as something sexually exciting even when completely out of context and this leads to pressure, shame and expectation as well as confusion. We say that we are being progressive by being open about sex yet the purpose of objectification is to appeal to our most basic instinct and awaken a carnal reaction of lust within us. I think it demeans us because it says that fundamentally we are ruled by our animal needs first and our intellect second. Nobody simply exists to meet the need, sexual or otherwise, of another. We may not think it is a big deal talking about a guy in terms of how great a body they have or what kind of things can be done with that body between our friends, but if we pass this cultural narrative of other-reduction to a purely physical functionality on to future generations we will continue to be the instigators of destructive attitudes, the perpetuators of the sexy ceiling which prevents people rising above their physical presence and the bystanders to sexual violence.

While the majority of media imagery is of women, there is increasing awareness of the sexual desire of women and in targeting them through depicting the male body as an advertising tool. Nowadays women hold the platform of social justification, we are encouraged to read erotica in public, celebrities take belfies (bum selfies) and give out to men when they comment on how hot these women are, we turn on any man seen to be abusing to women yet we don’t come to their aid when the tables are turned, we openly discuss men in very physical terms and set high physical standards for the men we want as partners but shame the guys in our lives when they do the same. We are operating under a double standard culture where women are asking not to be objectified by men but demanding to objectify them. For the past week I put a very handsome photo of a shirtless male celebrity as my phone background with the intention of observing whether any person raised objection or was bothered by what I was doing but apart from the expected conversations with other girls over just how hot he was that began with “oh why can’t real guys look like that?”, no person questioned me. Yet if a guy put a similar photo of a woman, eyebrows would be raised. The idea of a perfect man being one particular body type is perpetuated so easily in the media it should come at no surprise that men are dealing with as many body issues as women, different but not less relevant. Not only is the idea of gender equality warped by saying that women should treat men as the way men have been treating women but the sexual objectification of men in media is justified and socially acceptable because the identity we expect of men as strong and hardy demands that they can take it. This so called ‘levelling of the playing field’ is aided by women rising to power on an equal status of men in the media world and attempting to grasp what they think is equality but is simply the mistreatment of another gender. I once heard myself saying “you could grate cheese off of his abs” about a certain guy in front of other men and it was like I didn’t think or care to think of the adverse affect this blatant disregard for their worth had on the people around me. Descriptive, interpersonal language and communication has a profound affect on people, it can structure the way we see ourselves and the way we respond to others and is a powerful mediator in the relationship between men and women. Society continues to see women as emotional beings and men as physical so we let ourselves say this justifies us treating them like less than we want to be treated ourselves.  Sexual aggression towards men is a very present problem but hardly reaches the social platform as it is not viewed seriously because it does not fit with out conventional conditioned understanding of a man. 

Let me make one thing explicitly clear, being attracted to someone and verbally or physically expressing that attraction is NOT sexual objectification. There is a difference between something being sexually objective and it being just plain sexy. When we find people sexually attractive they appeal to us in certain ways and we appreciate the qualities they possess, physical or otherwise. We are not viewing them in a minimising way, it is much like the difference between finding someone attractive or being attracted to someone. It is about the intention of our thinking to someone, how we view and respond to them and how we think about them in our inner self narrative. I find myself extremely attracted to one particular guy because, as a whole person, I admire him. The physical part of him is admittedly extremely handsome but without an understanding of who he is I would simply be responding to him in an abject and self-fulfilling way. Being sexy is having total confidence in more than just what your body can do for another person, it’s a state of being that accepts yourself wholly and allows this acceptance to be felt on a tangible level in your relationships between others. Having sexy people in today’s media is a good thing because we should not be encouraging a stifling of that part of our nature but accepting it while being educated and aware as to the impact it has on others and ourselves. I’m not conventionally sexy. I wish I was and I have tried my hardest to be a sex object and felt bad for failing, but I have learned enough now that I don’t want to be with a person who only is with me because of how I serve their desires and how I can minimise myself to be what they need. We need to be aware of our individual contributions to the double standard of rape culture and when in our lives we are idly accepting sexually objectifying media without even questioning it. Sexual objectification is in car ads that display women bending over captioning “you know you are not the first but do you really care”, it is magazines telling women the best techniques to please their men, it is calling Ryan Gosling ‘the Body’ and diet coke ads that have men randomly stripping down while women stare and wolf whistle at him. It would be revolutionary for sexuality to be truly understood and celebrated, for us not to fear addressing the growth of sexual violence and how it is linked to these seemingly arbitrary images and mindsets and for everybody to realise that you don’t have to be this sexual thing in order to have a confident identity and appeal to other men and women. Truly I cannot be sexy if I am striving to be less than what I am as a person and if I do not recognise within myself when I am lessening others.

…but first let me take a selfie

Four months is rather a long time to go without communicating through a medium I very much grew to love and it pained me to experience the great beast of Writer’s Block that has plagued me for the last while. Upon examining this mental block I happened to learn quite a bit about myself and from it rose several interesting topics that rescued me from it’s clutches. I find this whole blog thing funny at times because I feel I preach all this awareness stuff and yet it is so hard for me to live it and when I do feel I am getting to a place of great self-awareness I sort of take a few steps backwards because I have sought it for the wrong reasons or I haven’t been honest about the state of my heart. I did not write for so long because I became wary of the vulnerability I was showing, I got scared and then took a lot of pride in how good and honest and intelligent I was being and that shocked me. Anyone who knows me knows I have a weird thing about self-control and I am only ever as trusting as I want to be. I got anxious about the trust I was putting out into the social sphere so I gave up. Recently I had someone come up to me and tell me they love that I am “so myself” and they wish they could be like me. This left me taken aback, I feel like I have so much lacking in myself and so much baggage carried from years back that I couldn’t see how I could be someone to look up to. I did not want to be emulated and I felt I needed to address that all I simply wanted for this girl was for her to see that she should strive to be herself. We are the ‘selfie’ generation. We are obsessed with ourselves in an interesting way that goes beyond shallow self-involvement and deeper, to an outward acknowledgement of hurt and suffering and a striving for acceptance and happiness with oneself. People criticise us for being self-focused and I wonder would they rather we were the self-less generation (and I don’t mean selfless in a giving, ‘other person’ orientated way) where we did not reflect on our role, our presence and contribution to this world and the duty to live our lives with every opportunity that has been afforded us? Yes we can be self-centred but being self-aware is crucial.

We all go through that great awkward stage where we try to find ourselves as teenagers. Then we hit our twenties and we might not be as awkward or hormonal but there are a whole new set of social roles for us to try to fulfil. The roles we can step into are numerous and are there for us to anchor ourselves in and live out the qualities associated with that role. Not only are we living in a time where we are being inundated with the idea that we can ‘be whoever we want to be’ but we are also living in great social revolution where there is active encouragement for individual identity and the promotion of the self. Society today values radical thinkers, individualists, altruists, a society of commonality, acceptance, equality and a mindset of non-judgement. It is so vibrant right now, this culture of the self being saviour.  I believe in this respect we are very lucky, our global community is so focused on the individual and promoting life for all people free from persecution, fear and prejudice and it’s made people socially and globally aware. Young people are encouraged to explore their sexuality, passions, careers and sample as many faith systems as they desire. Unfortunately, the other end of the spectrum is that our generation can also be the most self-indulgent, gratuitous generation. Expectation is the mindset of many young people, we are being told we can do whatever we want and live free whatever way we want, we value sexual liberation, noncommittal relationships and avoidance of responsibility in many aspects of our lives. We are constantly searching for experience, and we are finding our identity through anything that makes us feel good. We are an interesting mix of self-obsessed individuals who love freedom yet we live with unaddressed self-belief, self-satisfaction and self worth issues. Why do we let the opinions and judgements of others have such an affect on our lives? We should not be so easily dictated by the will of society around us yet we all feel pressure to belong and respond to it.

We women, sadly I cannot speak for men, have this tendency in our heads to tell ourselves that we are not enough and yet at the same time we are too much. We then proceed to look for evidence in our lives to validate this perceived understanding of our identity, the identity of inferiority fed into via multiple channels and fabricated conclusions and presumptions. For some of us we derive truth to back up these inner thought claims out of nothing such as from innocent text messages from boys that get dissected and are transformed into the cause of many nonsensical fears and woes. Comparison and the desire to be someone else is rampant in so many women and I find it interesting because we all talk the talk of self-worth and we are so immensely aware that we are unique individuals with our own struggles and we say we are learning to love ourselves. Yet, deep down in the heart space we still belittle, berate and condemn ourselves for not meeting the standards we set ourselves, for not being brighter, louder and more beautiful. Or if you are like me and are keenly aware of how overbearing your personality can be you wish to minimise yourself, control and maintain a mature and intelligent ‘filter’ as it were. For example, why do I workout? I say that it is because I enjoy it and for health reasons and no, no not because I want to look good, it’s not about looks at all. FALSE. Actually mainly it is because I am continually striving for self-improvement and yes I do want to look like those toned athletic women, who doesn’t? I want to be attractive to guys and I try and try and yet I can never reach a place of satisfaction with regards to my looks and my fitness. Whenever I reach a goal I find out that it is not good enough, that I am not good enough that I should be trying harder and there is more I can do, better I can look and a better gym bunny I can be and perhaps then I will be noticed, then I will be accepted for who I am and taken seriously. A good portion of women live believing that they must mould themselves in order to fit the desires that men look for. We want to be flirty, sexy, funny, confident, desired, pursued, powerful, independent, swept off our feet, strong and so it goes on. We find that if they don’t love us in the all-consuming and saving way we want then it is because we were lacking in some area and that failure is a flaw in our character that must be repaired.

A conversation I had with a friend once went like this. Her: “I don’t feel I belong up on stage in front of people, I feel unattractive and my body is not beautiful”. Me: “Are you kidding? You are so beautiful especially when you are performing”. My friend, in her wisdom, caught me out and said: “Now you see how it irritates me when you believe such lies about yourself? Why don’t you address your fears by shooting them down the way you do mine?” We are so quick to come to the defence of our friend’s identities, actively reassuring and lifting them up because we love them and want them to know this. Yet our perception of ourselves is seen through a negative filter of ‘I am not good enough’, a wishfulness based on preconceived notions of what it is to be a noble, good, beautiful and successful and a false humility that believes saying you accept yourself as a worthy individual is arrogance but continuously putting yourself down and exposing your bad qualities to society is a humbler state of being. And we do take pride in purporting that we eschew conformity, that we don’t subscribe to social expectations of looking a certain way, of pursuing a particular vice. We want the world to know we are mindful, at peace and accepting of who we are with our flaws and all, that we throw off stereotypes and those who live their lives in direct opposition to stereotypes are lauded as heroes. Trading one ideal identity for another (currently the ideal person to be is one who goes against the curve and doesn’t strive to be like everyone else) is simply showing an ongoing dissatisfaction with who we are and a deep rooted desire to be seen as more, to be ourselves only better.

Self-criticism and verbalised contempt for the self is not a sign of a humble person eager to amass great self-awareness but an insecure, socially influenced often prideful person seeking the bolstering up of their character from others. These people think controlling and stifling who you are is a greater way to be accepted and revered for depth of character. It is important to note that many people do live with a great deal of  low self-esteem that does not arise from pride but takes it’s roots from past hurts and experiences and general negative beliefs of their value and rather than challenging them for pride we need to be more understanding and question why they believe these things.  I know there are parts of myself that I dislike so much I can’t even bring myself to talk about them with God. I build a shield around them and ignore them until I’m in a place where I feel unworthy and then I can revisit these things I haven’t dealt with and indulge in the self-destruction because truthfully it’s safe for me and a way of protecting myself rather then allowing myself to come and be honest about just how rotten I am. I fear every time that He will judge me and agree with my opinion of myself like people have in my past. It’s so silly because that’s not the way God works and for me the best thing about learning to see myself with Him telling me truths is I can expose my worst doings and He is like “whatever it’s forgiven and I love you regardless”. We are so quick to criticise and tear down our fundamental selves as if the only way to carve out our identity is to shred any scrap of acceptance and happiness in who we are now and be constantly changing. Improvement is great if it comes from a positive place. Loving yourself is not selfish and more importantly is not pride-filled when it does not rely on any comparison to another, where is does not warrant the putting down of or envying of another character and does not involve the abuse of yourself.

Living in a way that you only show the parts of yourself that will be accepted and squash the parts you don’t like is not self-control it is manipulation and a loss of who you are. I will always want to be the type of girl I am not: sexy, flirty, organised and assertive and hide the goofy, embarrassing and endlessly awkward side of me but I won’t be, not through healthy means anyway. I hate getting compliments because it is hard to receive a compliment and not listen to that voice in my head that denies everything being told to me and won’t let me truly believe good about myself without claiming me to be vain. It’s all about a choice, I do not think that the criticism and the desire to filter out the parts we don’t like will ever go away we simply have to choose which voice we listen to and who we give the power to. For me it is Jesus and what He says about who I am when I start to agree with the hateful thoughts in my head that I try to choose. Bettering yourself and being a mindful person should be about honest self-evaluation without seeking to be what we are told by others to be, but it should also not be about vainglorious self-promotion and total ignorance of our faults. We should not be seeking to create a standard to show off to others and for them to measure themselves by but should be seeking to accept ourselves for all that we are and stop being so obsessed with improving and thinking endlessly about ourselves. Self-forgetting comes from self-acceptance and leads to a much happier way of being and a more present sense of self.

“Sweat like a pig to look like a fox”- so my choice is barnyard or woodland animal?

Welcome to January! The month where the blues are not just a music genre, where everyone is extremely dissatisfied with how much they indulged themselves over Christmas and self-improvement is the word of the moment. It is always a very interesting month I find. Normal life resumes and New Year’s Resolutions are dug out from last year and recommitted to. Habits we would like to eradicate or hobbies we would like to take up are widely discussed and attended to. Our increasingly individualistic world no longer needs institutions such as the church to give us meaning and focus in life, now we have to find purpose in other things such as wealth, relationships and the cultivation of the self and our physical presence. There is no higher representation of who we are than what we look like on the outside, at least that is the belief by which most of the world lives now. Nobody can escape the scrutiny and obsession with body image in our culture or deny that they have felt more than encouraged by society to lose that bit of weight usually put on over Christmas.

Because it is January and a great many people I know are aiming to be more health conscious I thought I might write on how fitness has become a large part of our lives both in the literal way and in the social, online presence way. We have moved into a more self-aware, health-conscious world. One where organic eating is more popular than fast food and doing crazy exercise classes are the new way of socialising. We are the fitness generation. It is an extremely positive advancement and is teaching people to make wiser choices about their diet and health. However, like anything that causes us to change ourselves we need to be careful of how much we let the pursuit of fitness take over our life. Thinspiration was a very popular trend among young women for a time. This self-deprecating activity was one where you would look at images of extremely thin people and motivational quotes to ‘inspire’ you to eat less in order to be skinny. Now that this has been perceived for the dangerous and unhealthy standard that it is we have the ‘fitspiration’ wave rising like a muscular dragon in it’s place. This is where we motivate not to be skinny but fit and strong and I think in general the idea is quite a good one. We have woken up and realised that having women punish themselves to have their bones physically jutting out of their skin is not only very unattractive but also encouraging disorders that are destructive and cause them to lose themselves to obsession.  However, if we look deeper at ‘fitspo’ promotion on social platforms it’s easy to see why many people are divided on whether this fitness trend is any better than the obsession with being thin. There is a fine line between motivation for positive health versus the cultivation of a perfect body. I think we need to be careful and think about our reasons for engaging in the world of exercise. My Instagram feed at one point was filled with scrolling images of sexy, lean women wearing beautiful workout gear, often posing in provocative positions with a motivational statement superimposed on top of them. I thought this would make me want to exercise more. They are strong, determined and scream at me “Why do you not look like this? Don’t you want this? Push yourself harder”. They did not make me feel good but like a failure who wasn’t trying hard enough. It really made me think about what I am valuing as important and why I am chasing a body that is unrealistic for someone of my stature and fitness level.  There is nothing wrong with being into fitness and engaging in that lifestyle, I love it sometimes. My issue is when being dedicated to maintaining a good physical appearance becomes a prerequisite for being an acceptable human being and becomes the most important part of our identity.

Like many people I decided to get back into exercise this year to get myself into better health. So I began by following new inspiration pages on Twitter to motivate me to go to the gym. That is until about a week ago when I intentionally unfollowed them because I was shocked by how mean they were online. I don’t even know these people personally and they succeeded in hurting my feelings. I just don’t think the kind of brutal and abusive attitude they circulate inspires anyone to anything but shame and disappointment. Not only that but they were posting really stupid and potentially dangerous unhealthy diet suggestions and I think that if we sit idly by and allow this nonsense to infiltrate our thinking it’s going to make us think that this is the only way to live a healthy lifestyle. The right kind of positive motivational social pages and advertisements often include healthy recipes and workouts that promote fun ways of being active and allow us to enjoy eating. The bad kind of motivation is destructive, shaming and equates getting the perfect body with achieving total happiness and self-acceptance. Messages such as ‘Unless you puke, faint or die KEEP GOING!’, ‘So you’d rather have a bag of chips than look like this?’, ‘Do not reward yourself with food you are not a dog’ are harsh, dangerous, demeaning and allow us to think it’s acceptable to hate and admonish ourselves. My brother, a fairly muscular gym goer, advised me I should clarify that I am not criticising people who are passionate and dedicated to a life of pursuing fitness and turn to fitspiration to keep them inspired appropriately. There are people who live a high fitness life because they are athletes or they simply find great joy in working hard for success. This is an admirable place to be in, they have a self-satisfaction that is not reliant on how they look but on their inner strength and perseverance and they are grounded in their identity. For them aesthetics are not the reason they work out but the thrill and joy at being at the peak of their fitness. I am talking to the rest of us.

As a girl I know how overwhelming the pressure is on us to look a certain way. Even though thin is no longer in we are still told that our curves need to be smooth, our bum round and tight, our legs muscular and lean, our arms slender, our hipbones slightly protruding.  The pressure is still there despite the change in what we perceive as ‘sexy’, and self-destruction lurks around the corner when we ourselves emulate that which we cannot achieve. I know many strong, confident women with fantastic personalities and independent lives and yet few will say they are 100% happy in their own skin. We are constantly told that we are not good enough, that we have to be striving to improve ourselves and we can’t be satisfied with our appearance. This is what advertising and media does. It floods us with expectations that if we look a certain way everything in life will fall into place and all we have to do is eat right, exercise a lot and we will be fully satisfied and whole. I have been all over the body spectrum. Years of being a chubby teenager unnoticed by boys led to a lot of strange ideas about relationships and how they only work if you are a pretty and slim. Utter nonsense of course, at my thinnest I could have modelled on a catwalk and boys no more noticed me then than now when I’m in a curvier state of being. Women search for love and acceptance in men. A lot of our self-confidence is built on how lads view and respond to us physically and we spend ridiculous amounts of time dressing ourselves up and tucking ourselves in for them. Somehow we have learned that we won’t be desired and can’t be comfortable being ourselves unless we can exude sex appeal and attract men with our body. It’s crazy, I do not ooze sex appeal and if that was the only reason somebody would want to date me then that would be a sad, shallow thing. Even other women have the ability to make us feel naked and ashamed of our bodies. We constantly put ourselves down and talk about self-improvement without a thought for the impact it has on the women around us, particularly the younger generation who think that self-criticism and judgement is acceptable.

I know this is post is very much focused on women but men are equally, yet differently, affected by the same issues. Us girls often have a very oblivious attitude to men and how they struggle with their own body image. There is almost a double standard out there where we tend to criticise and judge a man for objectifying a woman and saying they like certain looks and yet it’s ok for women to turn around and deconstruct men into almost purely physical beings. Many a conversation I have had with other girls involves us talking about ‘hot’ features in men, lauding those with good physical bodies as ‘perfect men’ and setting those physical attributes as a standard we look for in a partner. Most girls do this without a second thought for the affect this has on the lads in our lives. We create the idea that a real man must be strong, large and powerful. Yet, just like women, men have all different body shapes and it is not right to expect them to have to look a certain way to be manly. Men can be buff or they can be thin, they can be fit and yet look fat or they can be unhealthy and bulging with artificially developed muscles. We need to learn to make allowances for men to not be that physical, godlike being we all want. It’s ok to say that the guys I find attractive are more round and soft than Ryan Gosling or that some girls like men who a bit on the thin side. Just like its alright if lads like us women despite the fact that we don’t have the pert bum of Beyoncé or the taut abs of Jessica Alba.  These are are not fair standards for us to measure each other up to and perpetuating pressure to look a certain way only leads to negative self-image and low self-esteem. We shouldn’t have to feel like we are alienated or incapable of being considered beautiful just because we look different to a socially acceptable form of beauty, men and women alike. I know lads who have strong characters and have come through emotional difficulty with positive and fun attitudes but may not be ripped with a six-pack and that’s more than fine by me. Creating expectation that men are not allowed be insecure about their bodies has such damaging consequences on the mental health of guys and it limits their confidence in opening up about these issues.

It is a good thing to have a good handle on your health but is it more worthy to be disciplined, controlling and bent on perfection than striving for goodness, kindness and being a fun person? When I was at my most obsessed with getting fit I was blinded to everything but the importance of exercising constantly. It was a self-absorbance that I did not even notice because to me I thought that achieving ‘fitness’ was a good thing and required me to give up my time usually spent loving and valuing others. I am not saying you can’t be both, that you can’t spend time on working on your inner qualities, on being a loving and supporting friend and also being fit and eating healthy but what gets more media support and online attention? Going to a coffee shop and talking through things with your friend or spending time in the gym sculpting your body into something pleasing? Nowadays if you are not a socially acceptable body shape you are seen as being less of a good person than those whose bodies are more controlled. We can’t help judging people based on their outside appearance and make assumptions on their character. Being ‘fat’ is synonymous with laziness in modern culture. Tv shows for a long time portrayed larger people as being greedy, selfish and unable to control themselves while those with a slimmer body type as more focused, intentional, hardworking and intelligent. We emulate beauty and aesthetic perfection as the pinnacle of being an acceptable functioning person. We have twisted and manufactured beauty into this position where you can never reach it no matter how much change yourself, it is an unattainable ideal. We will always feel not good enough in comparison to other people because the world tells us that unless we are attractive we won’t be happy and won’t find love and success. Thankfully this is now changing with role models emerging in the world who don’t fit into the perfect body mould, who are admired for their humour and character regardless of their size and use their position to generate positive communication on social and self-acceptance.

Respecting our bodies should not just be about what society wants us to do for our health but about appreciating that we have good health and the ability to look after ourselves. There are countless people who live with ill health and yet without a second thought we often treat our bodies as rubbish bins, eating terribly and living a sedentary lifestyle. God healed me from serious illnesses and for me part of showing my gratitude means valuing myself as a representative of Him on this earth. He has given me new life and I try to live a healthy lifestyle, choosing to eat well and exercise moderately because I want to do right by Him. But there is a fine line between treating our body with care and clean living and controlling and punishing your body into submission. Our physical body is not the ultimate representation of our identity, nor is it what we should measure the worth of a person by. Worshipping the body can become idolatry if we are not careful. No longer do we pursue good health for the glory of God or for the simple act of being healthy people, but we begin to live a mindset that can lead us into self-obsession, narrow-mindedness and shallow relationships. True beauty is seen when you can feel good about yourself even if you don’t have a tight, toned body or naturally pretty features but you know in your heart that your character is good and you live outwardly as you are inwardly, boldly saying “I like who I am and my weirdness and my uniqueness and I am going to show that to the world”.  Challenging what is acceptably considered beautiful and choosing not to engage in shaming those who struggle with self-image is vitally important to ending the increasing prevalence of mental health issues related to body image and in encouraging one another to be real. Let’s not make chasing fitness about fitting into some socially constructed ideal of the perfect body but about treating ourselves and others with respect, worth and value. If we engage in this world of fitness then that’s great as long as we are being smart and are content knowing that it’s a lifestyle of health we pursue and not a slim body and that we do it not for the world but ourselves.

60 percent of the time I try be authentic all of the time

The whole topic of identity and self-acceptance is one overwhelmingly huge area. Look at it this way; the king of all animals on earth- the whale-has a cardiovascular system large enough for human beings to swim around in. That is what trying to discuss identity in depth feels like. Frightenly large, impressive and a challenge. Also yes I rather enjoy talking about whales and I have been waiting for the opportunity to brag about how deadly they are for sometime now. As I decided to write this I thought to myself where do I begin? I realised that I had to start with the development of self-awarenesss. How did I traipse upon this interesting and desirable quality? Well, truth-time here, it was sort of down to a boy. The thing about many of us girls is that when a person we fancy tells us they admire certain qualities we will go out of our way to live out those attributes. It’s silly but just something we do. During the summer I met a boy, who had the ability to make me feel both grounded and lightheaded at the same time, and he remarked to me that he found it extremely attractive when a girl is self-aware. Because I really wanted him to like me I decided to look into it. I want to stress this isn’t to say that he was the entire reason for me to start working on my inner self, but rather he made me stop and remember that there were parts of myself I was neglecting. I already would consider myself quite introspective. I spent years on the outer rims of the social loop as a ‘loner’ and so, from observing relationships around me, I know a bit about how people relate to one other and can generally discern to some extent behaviour patterns and habits in people and myself. However, I had spent the last year or so focusing purely on my physical self and I thought it was time to go back to working on my inner issues. This pursuit led me to the deeply layered world of authenticity, a buzz word that I would often hear thrown around by Christians and now is a quality that many of my generation are searching for. It is a growing trend that has arisen as a response to the pervasive consumerist lifestyles in our ‘global culture’. Being an authentic individual means to be genuine, to be lacking in falsehood and to go out of your way to take off your masks particularly in your relationships. Living authentically is being brave enough to be in a place to say “I am who I am, these are my limitations, these are my abilities and I am going to trust that with you” even when there is great potential for judgement, social rejection and withdrawal from those around us. It is a rawness, a realness and a type of living that creates connection with others that we all yearn for and eschews the sameness and striving for materialist satisfaction that has become our reality.

Introspection is the deliberate act of examining one’s own thought processes and behaviours in order to determine the origin of cognitive bias, defence mechanisms, and behavioural tendencies. Being an authentic person involves taking away these walls that separate the real us from others and also from God. To be truly authentic in life we must face up to the things we say and do, good and bad, in order to create barriers and protect ourselves from hurt and disappointment. Understanding why we behave and respond in certain ways will help us to be more aware of how we are with people, whether we are being fake with them or if we are feeding into a character they want us to be. Knowing ourselves is particularly necessary for girls because around lads we have a tendency to act silly, flirty and giggly often playing dumb in order to win their approval and attentions, and with other girls we get stuck in a cycle of comparison, always striving to be seen and measure up particularly in the realm of beauty. So many women are living as fractured versions of themselves because they can’t face living who they really are, exposed, in this world of self-improvement and fulfilment. Society very much dictates that in order to get far in life we have to step into certain roles and behave in certain ways. Discovering how to be who you are is hard enough without contending with the world around us telling us we are not beautiful enough, smart enough, good enough and that we have to feel ashamed if we have emotional baggage, if we let our insecurities overcome us or if we don’t hide the problems in our lives. We worry far too much and too deeply about other people, about making them uncomfortable and about their judgements of us. We don’t want to appear to be too happy with ourselves in case people think we are arrogant but also we don’t want to appear too insecure and needy for fear they will run away. All of these worries plague us and we start to layer up on falseness and trying to convince others that we are grand until the person we are presenting to the world is an edited, watered down self and any attempts to address our issues can’t really take place because we become convinced that this surface identity is all that is worth being.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am outspoken about being myself and try not to care about what people think of me. ‘Try’ being the operative word here. Not too long ago I decided that I was tired of all the comparing, the jealousy and the discontent with who I am. I realised that I was never going to be the same as everyone I admired, I was tired trying to be a character that people would accept and emulate and the more revisions to myself I made, the more I lost what makes me unique. I want to be in the world wholly happy that I am not like everyone else but I am like me and I want to understand what that means. Living by the standards of the world led me to hate who I was. Looking at my life objectively I fail at being a successful human being in several ways. I can’t count very well, I am an unorganised mess, I have no idea of my bank balance, I haven’t had a successful relationship with a guy, I hate the college course I am doing and I still live with my parents. I sound like a pretty pathetic adult and if I was to rely on the what the world says I should be for my self-worth I would still be in that place of constant frustration because I could never match up. Everywhere around me I see people constructing their identity out of what we see in the media and others. They spend so much time looking outwards and controlling themselves they forget to turn to their inner self and the insecurities within that lead them to be so dissatisfied. Their identities are subject to constant change and abandoned frequently depending on the importance they place in the opinions of the world. To an extent we choose to engage in whatever identity is thrust upon us. I was the invisible girl for years and in a way I maintained that identity. I isolated myself because it was safer than trusting people, I thought I would end up getting hurt and I embraced my role as reject. I blamed others for my failures and I pushed people away because I was so set in my perception that I was not wanted.  I was so insecure and desperate to be saved that I avoided contact with people altogether, I thought I was worthless and so treated myself as such. I accepted these beliefs and I engaged in alienating behaviours. We all do this, beat ourselves up and change ourselves as a response to the pressures of fitting in, being liked and getting ahead in life. When I feel overwhelmed and particularly lonely, I find myself frequently engaging in false patterns of conversation or presenting who I am in ways that I know people will like and accept to bolster myself. I hide the bad and try really hard to switch on the good. However, I am my good and bad points. I know I’m needy, clingy, yearning for love, I know that when I fall for people I give away my heart too easily but also I withhold it easily from others, particularly girls. However, there are good parts to me that I am aware of. I am good at conversation, I love really cheesy and stupid childish things, I have a lot of silly fun in life, I care deeply for people and I love fiercely. Behaviours such as spending time tailoring our Facebook statuses in order to get ‘Likes’ is one definite sign that we worry too much about being validated in our image whether it be as the quirky and comedic one , the wise and educated one or the wild and much loved party one. This is just one way I seek validation. Social networking is a major platform for creating our identities and also is an extremely powerful influence on our worth and belonging. Fear of missing out is the new destroyer of confidence. My sister recently remarked to me that the reason true, honest relationships are becoming so difficult is because on social media we can keep ourselves safe and be everything we wished we could be, easily leading someone to become attracted to this wondrous presentation of ourselves. Just look at the ‘selfie’ culture, the endless filtering and editing of photos that people do in order to appear beautiful to great numbers of friends. Surely we can all agree that who we are online is rigidly edited and controlled, is not a full picture of everything that we are and is creating a shallow culture and a weakening of relationship and understanding of others. Fortunately I can see in my friends around me a willingness to thwart this and people are being more real now.

It’s important to understand that being self-aware is not just about being outspoken about your flaws, self-degrading and publicly putting yourself down in order to appear humble. This is the great mistake we often make, particularly Christians who fret about appearing arrogant, and this also applies to the Irish. Continually self-shaming and brushing off compliments is something I regularly do and this habit is a revelation of how I still struggle and conform to culture. We put ourselves down because we don’t feel we can measure up to others and we crave to not have them judge us yet at the same time boost us up. It amuses me how afraid as a people we are, again particularly the Irish, to be honest not just about our inadequacies but our redeeming qualities, those parts of ourselves that are our best selves. In accepting God and His words I have become more accepting of my role as His daughter. I am much more willing to look at and analyse the best and worst parts of me and perhaps consider allowing people to do this in partnership with me. This is a place I am in a lot of the time, where I can truly accept myself, but still I struggle. Feeling more comfortable sharing my issues and insecurities with people is something that I admit I need to work on. I don’t feel like I am better than anyone, I understand I am equally as faulty and ridiculous as any girl next to me and I have no right to feel I am above them. However, I am grateful for the assurance of God that I am no lower than anyone else. No longer do I feel like I am ‘less than’ other girls because I am not as funny, pretty, popular or as desired. I can walk into a room of beautiful, confident people and not feel like wrapping myself in my blanket and sitting in the corner ashamed because I am unworthy. I always felt that it was me and them separated by a large empty space. In school I used to hide in the toilets, read my book and eat because I was so set in the narrow view that people would not like me or what I would have to say. How could I challenge other people’s acceptance of me when I couldn’t accept myself? Being brutally honest with yourself is hard but rewarding and inexorably draws you into a place of self-acceptance and acceptance of others. The self actually becomes less important as your eyes are opened to the others around you.

A culture of hiddenness is unfortunately very strong among Christians. I recently read some writings by a man named Tim Keller and he said if you take two Christian people sitting side by side they look identical to the naked eye. However, the foundations on which each person builds their identity can differ greatly depending on whether they find their meaning and saviour in themselves and maintaining an appearance of living good, moral lives or if they readily admit they fail but accept that their identity in Christ is unchanged, God will not leave them and they don’t feel obliged to meet impossible standards of moral living. We feel compelled to hide our pain and shame from the world because there is enormous pressure and expectations to show others that when you are right with God all your issues disappear. For a long time in Ireland, due to the control of the old Catholic Church, we were pushed to not seem ungrateful and struggling in our daily lives because this does not send a righteous message and how we lived was meant to highlight the importance of sacrificing and denying yourself for salvation. We had to be ‘right’ with God through our actions and works. Lads, this is a really hard standard to live by. I don’t want to project a false image that I live a perfect, religious lifestyle. Who I am is very much under the same influence of the world around me as any other. This perspective that Christian identity is firmly moral, good and upright leads people to the mindset of “well I have had sex so I can’t be a Christian” or “I swear and like living a party lifestyle so I can’t go to church on a Sunday” which is exclusive and contradictory to the heart of what Jesus says about us and who we are. A huge portion of society believe that once they engage in bad behaviour they can’t go back, they just dont meet our standards or they have to give up their identity and live a pious and penitential lifestyle to ‘join the club’. Us Christians can often find ourselves living in a safe subculture of ‘goodness’ that has alienated itself from society, one we perpetuate and can only change by letting go and living a lifestyle that is open, authentic and non-exclusive. I admit aloud I mess up regularly and I am blessed because I have God in my life helping me and carrying me through that and working through my issues slowly but patiently. To be truly authentic we should be tolerant and honest, reject pretence and more importantly condemn hypocrisy. We accept that we are a broken people but we also need to accept that we have gifts and good qualities too and be honest about that which God has graced us.

Making the effort to get to know people behind their masks is not only really fun and a great way to let people learn to love themselves but is a way to get us to show them who we really are, to foster epic conversation and an accountable lifestyle. I love showing people that with me they can be themselves without fear of rebuke. It’s a minor reflection of the love and acceptance that is in God but I have many people in my life who don’t know God and they still have that need to be accepted. I’m not saying that I’m wonderful and never judge people, I am only human, but I am saying that the freedom I have to be myself is because of my friend Jesus and I feel I can more readily accept others and I am open to trying because of how He has freed me from my fixed perspective on me and my issues. When you live assured in yourself it is wonderfully freeing, walking into a room and not worrying what everyone is thinking is nice. My focus is moving on from being obsessed with changing and making myself better to being enabled by God to share the wonder of His acceptance with everybody else. Living authentically is not only about thinking less of who you are and showing people how broken and wrong you are, and neither is it just about emulating yourself as someone who is self-actualised or setting yourself up as a standard for people to live by. It’s about being real with people, putting false ways of conducting ourselves to protect ourselves aside. When you are truly humbly living you are more able to feel love and joy at seeing people come to accept themselves as they are. No longer are we the centre of our own little world. A little warning here this may be cheesy but in the spirit of being authentic I am going end on a Disney movie reference because that’s who I am. At the end of the film Camp Rock the mighty Demi Lovato sings a song that enscapulates all the changes she has gone through in the summer. Helped somewhat by Joe Jonas she has rediscovered the joy of being at ease with herself and happily sings about stepping out from the darkness of her failures and into the light of realising who she is, challenging those who spurned her by accepting herself. Isn’t that a deadly concept to consider? To stand up to all the haters and say “I like me, I want to try like you and I want to show you that you can like you to for who you are. Let’s be friends”.

If people knew how crazy you were do you think they would even talk to you?

I am very angry right now.  These past two weeks have been tough for me, both in a physical fatigue kind of way and an emotional frustration way. Anger is a curious emotion I find. It arises from many things, such as when someone takes something we want or we feel we are being persecuted in an unfair way. These destructive furies are all about the self and what ‘I’ can do for ‘me’. My kind of anger has come from observations outside myself. This is a self-less emotion as it usually comes from a worry or a hurt over injustice done to others. I believe this anger is harder to deal with because the cause lies in a situation we usually cannot resolve by simply slamming a door or shouting at nearby people. My anger makes me sad and I feel a weight in my chest as it brings up all sorts of buried emotions from my past. I am of course going to write about what caused me to feel this way, a topic that is of burning importance in the world right now and, in Ireland, is undergoing significant challenge and change. This is the area of mental illness. I have been working as a student nurse in a psychiatric unit recently and I have come out of the experience frustrated, a little frightened and also ashamed at myself and at society. I am disappointed in myself for the preconceptions I didn’t know I had and that I, of all people, had no right to possess. I am especially angry at Irish culture for the ongoing stigmatisation and negative treatment of people who struggle with mental health issues. An interesting fact I learned about Ireland and mental illness, at any one time more than 450,000 Irish people or 10% of the population are affected by it. We are one of the worst nations of Western culture in our treatment of mental illness. Ireland has always been a bit of an anomaly in the way we do relationships, drink and deal with the world and most of this arises from our many years of being controlled by the British Empire and the Catholic Church of the 50s and 60s. Despite the leaps and bounds our nation has taken in the last decade towards becoming more globalised and multicultural, we still have a backwards approach to dealing with people who are different in any way and there is a strong, national reluctance to address these issues fully. It is of pressing concern now that we actively begin having conversations about these illnesses, about the devastating consequences it is having on our economy,our families and most importantly our sense of identity and ability to function in this world. The pain of going through an illness such as this is so consuming and devastating and yet, traditionally the physical maladies of humanity have been dealt with in a more active and critical way.

There is a very famous saying that encourages people to ‘practice what they preach’. The whole reason I write these writings is because I want to encourage honest conversation, and move people to change the way we interact with one another. These are really the beginning steps in fighting mental illness. I think that people don’t usually like to take advice from others who only have an objective, outside point of view or don’t have a personal understanding of the issue and so I am taking a cautious step here in the hopes of encouraging others to do the same. Why am I so passionate about this issue? This is not something I have ever admitted lightly and I am not going to divulge too much here but part of my healing process involved admitting and coming to terms with the fact that I do struggle with mental illness. I lived through one for years as a teenager, I am still in recovery over a second resulting one and I am living in the presence of another in a close family relative. These things, these clawing, rotting prisons we trap ourselves within are horrific and leave scars that eat away at us for a long, long time and if they go unresolved they will cause us to lose ourselves entirely. It is so difficult to face your problems especially when living in a culture that operates on a surface, ‘ah sure it will be grand’ level. The Irish are a people that derive meaning from appearing as if everything is ok and  not letting our problems be known for fear of retribution or rejection. Stereotyping and social stigma has caused a lot of damage, a lot of regression and unfortunately a lot of death. We do this horrible thing where we forget the identity of the individual and join it with their illness leading to negative ideas of the worth of a person and reactions to them even before we have met them. Even I, who has struggled with mental illness, went into work in a psych unit afraid of the ‘crazies’ and assured in myself that I was never ‘as bad as them’. What utter nonsense. The media has fed us sensationalised images and ideas of these illnesses that suggest violence and promote fear and wariness as well as an ‘us or them’ attitude. Terms such as ‘schizos’ and phrases like ‘gone in the head’ have been coined and are used interchangeably with the name of the individual as if that is all they are. Society convinces a person that they are lacking, they need to withdraw and hide away because they are different. We tend to accept the belief that if you are mentally ill you have a weakness in your character, a lower intelligence. I always felt afraid of the judgement, afraid that people would see me differently and think less of me so I never sought help for my problems and that only escalated them. Mental illness is a faceless anonymity that people daily are living in, people who wish to live a life of dignity and normalcy and to be accepted. Is it any wonder that people turn to mind-altering substances to numb and escape their reality? Interestingly mental illness and substance abuse walk alongside one another, people with depression are often found to end up becoming alcoholics. Nothingness can often seem like a welcome release to the inner storm particularly in Ireland where the culture of drowning your sorrows in the local pub permeates daily life, even for people in good mental health.

Relationships have a huge affect on surviving mental illness. Conversation in Ireland is characterised by the term ‘banter’. This is a particular way of relating to one another where we laugh and have a great time, we drink a lot and it is all very easy. Our bonding is shallow, we tend to berate and tear ourselves and each other down for fun and we moan about the weather. Relationships never really go much deeper than that. Interaction rarely goes as far as one person letting down their barriers and seeking help, assurance and meaningful conversation in the other. This type of relating is especially lacking between men. For women it’s a bit easier as we have social expectations of being emotional beings and it is more acceptable for us to seek solace in other women. For men though it is very difficult to take that first step. Social roles are powerful, binding things.  Us women can be guilty of perpetuating  expectations placed on young men, leading them to feel ‘less than’ when they can’t live up to our ideals. In Ireland there is a socially accepted role for men to be strong, masculine,  able to deal with crisis and not very emotional. Friendship is characterised by drinking, having good banter and a good time and being a strong character. Deep conversation on their insecurities and emotional stress is left to the women and men fill their time trying to be the loudest, funniest and toughest lad in the group. This is a generalisation of course but the sad truth is that for the most part in this country this is the truth. We don’t encourage guys to be more open about their feelings and that is why men struggle more with depression. During the summer I had the privilege of experiencing some real friendships between guys that had accountability, wisdom, emotional sharing and a concerted effort to better one another and it was fascinating. I hope to encourage my brothers to take these same standards into their friendships as I think we all need that in our lives to assure us of a stable, reliable comfort during difficult times and a person that will help us grow in who we are.

Asking another person for help involves a setting aside of pride. Irish people are not very good at humility, we are very passionate and proud people and will readily start on someone (in a physical, beating up kind of way) if they even hint at a flaw in our character. We have been brought up with a subconscious desire to reject any kind of person or institution that attempts to control us. Being real with one another and opening up to someone requires a submission of sorts, a conceding of your image that you have it all together and a giving of yourself into the confidence of another person. This is just not done in our culture and if you confess to struggling with mental illness it is seen as abnormal and shameful and thus, we don’t feel like we can openly confess to people how hard it is. There is a warped sense of comfort in hiding in your illness, we feel we don’t have to deal with it or confront it and if nobody knows then we are safe. The facade continues, our image is unblemished and we are not truly as bad as this illness is telling us we are. We are perfectly satisfied living a lie and convincing ourselves that we are ok as long as ‘the neighbours don’t find out’ meanwhile at home we are trapped in a spiral of self-destruction. I was recently very touched by an interview that went viral in Ireland with a man known as Conor Cusack. He is a well-known sports figure and he wrote a blog about his experiences with depression and recovery. It was a powerful piece that honestly made me cry it was so poignantly written. He was so frank, so much more honest than even I am being and he had powerful words of encouragement for people going through the same thing. He wrote this because he wanted to address the isolation experienced by others, to provide a comfort and encourage us to live free and unburdened by the stigma associated with mental illness. He, as a man, was taking a huge step in opening up and it has already led to a breaking down of many social barriers.

The realisation that you are not alone in these struggles is the first step to moving past it. Of course there is medical management but unless there is active healing of the fragmented self, a restoration of the person’s self-worth and a support system of non-judgemental friendship then medicine can only take you so far. One of my favourite films is ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’. Completely hipster and typically indie this film may be but it perfectly captures what it is like to try to grow up, make friends and find your identity while living with mental illness. My favourite scene is where Charlie, the main character, has been hospitalised and it is revealed the things in his past that led him to this place. His father, who before was distant, walks in and without saying a word gently kisses him on the head. It is this fleeting glimpse of total acceptance and apology that made me hurt deep inside.  This is what we need now, not literally kisses on the head, but the creation of an environment of acceptance, release and honesty where we can be who we are, live without fear and pursue true relationships. This is what it felt like for me with God when He came to me and carried me in His arms from my prison. For me I found my healing, and an ability to trust people again, through a working relationship with God. He continually leads me to a place of peace and when I am struggling He shows me people in my life who are willing to share my burden, who are hurting alongside me and who tell me that I am an individual worth knowing. Coming into a relationship with God out of the darkness has been like walking from a dark, choking forest into an open field of wildflowers. Light touches every corner, I can breathe, run around and be myself and accept a new, gentler and clearer perspective on life.  This is an ongoing restoring of myself from my Father. Recovering has been a long and often relapsing process but when the branches threaten to suffocate me again I always feel that breeze of God’s voice calling to me and drawing me into the reality of His love for me.  I feel this way a lot of the time and sometimes I don’t and I don’t feel guilty for admitting that. I don’t want to live ashamed of my past because it has given me so much learning and perspective. Seeing the sufferings of others and intentionally seeking to talk through it with them is how I intend to live my life now. God has seen my crushed spirit and He saved me, He is close to me when I am broken-hearted and I am so thankful for that freedom (Psalm 34:18). I really believe that open communication needs to be encouraged, freedom to stand in our weaknesses accepted and a reliance on true friendship that strengthens one another sought after in order to generate change.

We need to change our perception of what it is to be mentally unwell. This requires education, willingness and an emotional investment within us to fight. We can’t let ourselves be a ‘put your problems in your pocket’ people. Our world today is so much more informed, spiritual, political, activist and globalised than the generations that came before us and we have a duty to improve the world for future generations. There is a worldwide movement towards tackling mental health issues and I for one am egging it on.  Conor Cusack, in his interview, made an excellent point that it actually takes courage and is a display of strength to admit a struggle. So let us be strong and admit when we are weak.