I know what you are thinking. Looking at that picture of me, you are thinking: “Good lord, isn’t he gorgeous!” or maybe: “My, what a fine specimen of a man.” Words to that effect, anyway.
Deny it all you like, but there is no shame in thinking that I am marvellous. Even I think it. Sometimes.
Not long ago, I would never even have taken a photograph of myself looking so daft – let alone allow it to be published. I would have despaired that I looked stupid, uncool, ugly. I would have fretted that folks would think me ridiculous, frivolous, hideous. I would have wished that I looked smart and had worn something expensive; talismans of sophistication to ward off feeling mortified, to combat the shame that would be burning in my cheeks.
Not that it would have worked. I would still have been embarrassed and ashamed of myself for taking up space just to be silly. Like many people saddled with the big ego/low self-esteem combo, I bruised like a peach. I would withdraw and isolate, with only my negative self-talk for company. Or I would go the other way: go out, get wasted, get gonorrhoea. Neither option was pretty, nor was it sustainable.
Since I had what we might diplomatically call a huge mental health crisis, I have been recalibrating, rewiring and rebuilding myself. (Think The Six Million Dollar Man starring Jimmy Krankie.) Even with expert help, this is very much a work in progress. And, much like painting the Forth bridge, it will be ongoing. Some days are harder than others and some aspects of the process are, ahem, challenging. I would not be surprised to wake one day to find Kevin McCloud voicing his doubts that the project will ever be finished.
But other parts of the process are really, weirdly simple and relatively easy to practise. (As with everything, it is all about practice.) This is where my resolution comes in – or rather, where it moves front and centre. This is the point at which, as they say in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “the subtext is rapidly becoming text”.
To tackle your shame means you have to stop apologising for yourself. It takes guts and time and it can feel like a Sisyphean undertaking – but being unapologetic still yields bigger dividends than the effort it requires.
So, these days, I no longer send emails “just to follow up our call” or “just to remind you that my invoice is due, just in case it’s got lost in the ether”. I am never “sorry to bother” anyone, especially if the bother in question is simply asking them to do their job or do what they promised.
To be clear, I am not talking about being an unrepentant arsehole. If I make a mistake, I still apologise for being wrong. But there is a world of difference between apologising for mistakes you have made and apologising for your very existence.
I don’t apologise when someone bumps into me, as I used to do all the time. I don’t assume responsibility for other people’s behaviour, emotional needs or thinking. And, even though I find other people’s discomfort uncomfortable, I resist the knee-jerk urge to try to fix it as if it were my fault.
These might sound like insignificant alterations to behaviour – a word or two’s difference to every second email that the recipient probably won’t notice – but I notice and it makes a difference to me. Those tiny changes are little victories and, some days, little victories are the only wins you get. Plus, little victories mount up; an avalanche is just a lot of snowflakes, after all. Don’t get me wrong: I look at that picture and I still get a pang of oh-my-God-why-on-earth. But it is far away and very quiet. It is peaceful. I like it.