Today, on World Mental Health Day, I am hoping everyone checks in on how they’re travelling. Are you waking up feeling energised and enthusiastic about the day ahead? Are you finding joy in the small things? Or do you wake in a panic, already drowning …
A very dear friend, whom I consider to be one of the wisest and kindest in the world, said these words yesterday and I could not agree more with her. The other amazing thing is that she said this in front of a group of …
When you were babies and I went back to work and a PhD, it was all about you.
I worried that you may be somehow compromised by having a mother who left you on some days of the week to pursue a career. This was a selfish and dangerous act, I was told by the media (and indeed, by other women). My babies would end up depressed, anxious, starved of love, neglected, and generally traumatised by our separation. I was told you would never grow up quite right, that the experience of having a mother who wasn’t always there would somehow affect you forever and you would end up needing therapy.
I was also told I was a bad mother, or worse I wasn’t even a mother, but that’s for another post.
So I did what every other parent who works outside the home does. I loved you as much as I physically and emotionally could when I was around. I read to you every night, rocked you to sleep, slept with your little faces close to mine, took you for walks, to the park, planned your birthday parties, had playdates at the zoo, gave you baths, taught you how to use a spoon and fork. I did all the things. I fit my schedule around you. Throughout the PhD I made sure to fit in days to wake up late with you, to have a pleasant day wandering out to the playground followed by a nap, and a play at home. This would compensate for the times when you were suffering without me, in the care of another loving adult.
Now you’re in primary school – where did the time go? And along with you eventually becoming toilet trained, learning to strap yourselves in, do up your own shoes, shower yourselves, read and ride a bike, my PhD has morphed into something called “academia”. Last year was a blur of meetings, grants, conferences, deadlines, crises, reports, and way too many weekends spent “working”. Throw in clinical work and I was one stressed mumma. Yet you continued to flourish and thrive despite me not being around all the time. You are, undecidedly, two of the most loving, confident, infectious, joyful, resilient and engaging children I’ve ever met. And you love kale. Kale is your favourite thing. How did I pull that off?! I may be biased of course, and you’re not perfect (Exhibit A Your Honour – yesterday’s bickering in the car which required my “mum voice” and an order to please cease talking immediately or mummy will lose her shiz big time) but somehow, in the midst of the PhD, while I was trying so hard to ensure your needs would never be unmet, you’ve grown into two beautiful and bright little people.
Sometime last year, I cannot remember when, I experienced “The Meltdown”. This went on for quite a while. I had the sense of losing complete control over my schedule. I was hurtling down into an armageddon of endless demands. To compensate, I did what I’ve always done- worked harder. It finally occurred to me that this could not be the solution any more. I was working myself into the ground with nothing to show for it.
I’m now in recovery. And I’ve made a conscious decision to pull back, to say no, to protect my weekends and even my evenings. Work smarter not harder. Take breaks. And I’m not doing this for you this time. I’m doing it for me.
I need you like never before. After a week of battling my old friend Impostor syndrome, of juggling students and meetings and projects and people, I need to listen to your fart jokes, see your wide smiles breaking like the most beautiful sunrise across a beautiful little face. I need to be lulled by the gentle rhythms of the weekend – lazy breakfasts, baking, going to the beach, watching Pokemon. I need to listen to the musical chatter of your imaginative play, and I need to kiss you every night, once when you go to bed, and once more when I turn in, so I can see you sleeping and feel my heart explode. You complete me and revive me in a way my career never will. You put the strength back into me that ebbed away during the week. On Monday mornings I feel human again, I feel whole, and I have enough charge to get through another week.
Maybe I’ve always done all the things for me, and not for you. It’s just that parenting always seemed to focus on the needs of the child and not the parent. I’m learning now, the hard way, that self care for parents is the number one priority.
So it’s not you, it’s me. I’m saying no to weekend work, to the demands, not because you’ll be compromised and need therapy, but because I will. It’s time for me to thrive and flourish.
Thank you for growing up into the beautiful people that you are today. It gives me faith every day that I’m somehow doing the right thing.
Your loving mumma
I’ve been on a journey to discover how to be happier for some years now. Initially it was pretty vague, but as the stressful events in my life ramped up, it took on a great deal more focus. Funny how that happens. Happiness research has similarly …
Happy New Year! I generally enjoy the opportunity to reflect as the years tick over. But one of my pet peeves are the messages that come screaming out in abundance on Jan 1. “New Year New You!” or even worse – “Get a new body for the new year”.
A new body?! My body’s perfectly fine, thank you.
You see, our bodies are amazing. I don’t think people appreciate this enough. Got a virus? You feel like death and your GP tells you to drink fluids, rest, and maybe take some zinc (which actually works. Try it!) Is your GP useless? No! We know that generally healthy people have amazing immune systems that kick viruses in the viral butt and you will feel fabulous with time. Nicked yourself shaving? Your body immediately commands platelets to go to the cut to form a clot, then healing occurs from the bottom up of your wound. Your body, your amazing body, then builds a framework of collagen to start healing that wound. White cells zing about to get rid of any bacteria. In time, you would hardly know that you ever had a cut there. Good as new!
The thing is, most people don’t like their bodies much at all. We walk around thinking negative thoughts about our bodies, about how our bellies wobble, our knees ache, our back hurts, our cellulite is gross, etc. And another sign we don’t like our bodies is that we trash them. We don’t feed our bodies enough whole food (most Australian adults don’t eat the recommended serves of fruit and veg a day), we don’t move them enough (most adults don’t get the recommended minutes of physical activity per week) etc. And we don’t look after our mental health – we fall into bad habits of rumination, lashing out in anger, impulse eating/shopping/drinking/smoking/whatever to ease mental discomfort. This has a huge impact on our body.
What if we loved our bodies instead, for the amazing things it does, even without us knowing it? What if we acknowledged and honoured it for the things it could do if we just treat it right? Would you expect an expensive sports car to run well if you don’t give it the right fuel and never take it for a service? Even if you’re unwell right now, your have a chronic condition like chronic pain, or parts of your body won’t work, focus on what it can do. Chances are you’re reading this right now with your own two eyes (or maybe even one eye!) Right now, light and shadows are being picked up by tiny cells in your retina, which send electrical signals down your optic nerves into your brain. WOW! Plus, our bodies have amazing capacity to heal even if you do have a chronic condition. Do you know you can reverse early diabetes with healthy eating and exercise?
This new year, I am challenging myself, and all of you, to love our bodies. Be proud of your body. Acknowledge the ways you haven’t looked after it, and then move on. What can you change? Start small – you can’t expect to run a half marathon if you barely did any exercise last year. What can you change tomorrow with your diet? Physical activity? Mental health? You start with loving yourself (yes Whitney had a point here…) and accepting yourself in your glorious imperfect self. Then you start treating your body the way it should be treated. Here are some ideas:
- Nourish your body with plant-based whole foods. Eat more veggies. (French fries don’t count, sorry!) You’ll reduce your risk of heart disease, and even your moods will improve! Fiber feeds your gut bacteria which can then produce more happy hormones.
- Cut down on alcohol. Moderate drinking isn’t 3 glasses of wine a day. It’s 1 standard drink (less than one standard pour of wine) for ladies, and 2 standard drinks for men. Learn to unwind in other ways instead. Your body and your bank balance will love you for it.
- Get enough sleep. Did you know sleep deprivation dials up the fight or flight response and makes you crave carbs?
- Eat less sugar.
- Move your body. Walk, hike, do zumba, play footy, whatever floats your boat. As long as it moves your body and raises your heart rate and you do it regularly.
- Breathe. Learn to notice your breath. In and out. in and out. Hey! You’re meditating!
- Laugh. A lot. Every day.
- Strengthen your body. Do some weight training twice a week. This will help dem bones keep strong.
- Most of all learn to be kind to yourself.
My colleague Dr Kevin Yong, a GP who lives and breathes what he preaches, has some handy free guides to get you started. Click here to download!
BONUS!! You might be thinking that Dr Carolyn is SUCH a buzzkill right now. Cut down on wine?! Well I have a bonus recommendation for you. Coffee can be good for you! Thank you science! Here’s a wee blog I wrote about the evidence for coffee’s benefits.
So there you go. You don’t need a new body. Learn to love yourself, and love your body this year. Wishing you health and happiness!
You may have heard about a tidying-up phenomenon known as Marie Kondo. Marie is a Japanese lady who wrote a book about throwing away things that don’t “spark joy“, and rolling up your socks so you can have a pristine sock drawer. I have to …
Recently I took some time off during the school holidays. We woke up late. We went cycling and rollerblading a lot. We had leisurely lunches and long walks. It was beautiful weather and the days seemed to stretch on forever, filled with wonderful things like …
So a couple of months ago I got an email from a stranger. He’s a radiation oncologist from the USA. He is “really impressed” by the research I’ve been doing and wants to connect and collaborate. I did what every academic worth their salt does.
I Googled him.
First, I discovered that he’s a Professor, with “over 30 years experience, countless awards and has published over 200 papers and book chapters” and that he is “recognised nationally as one of the top doctors in his field”. I then Googled for an image of what he looks like. He’s a tall bearded man in a white coat. I’m a diminutive female who has certainly not published “over 200 papers and book chapters”. When people describe me, the word “cute” often pops up. I felt a very familiar knot in my stomach.
I psyched myself into emailing Bearded Man back, and after a few emails we settled on a Skype call. Bearded Man was incredibly nice. I liked him immediately. We talked about our research interests and background. He was saying the words “I’ve read what you do and I really like the work you’ve done”. And at that moment, during that Skype call with Nice Bearded Man, a voice inside my head said:
“Oh. Well. He’s clearly talking about the wrong person. There’s been a huge mistake.”
Fortunately, my Lovely Psychologist had briefed me about the different parts of me that I should start to notice. This was Critical Me. This was Impostor Syndrome.
Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is “a concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a `fraud'”. I’ve suffered from IS for years. It strikes me in many aspects of my life. I used to feel like an impostor mother. (“I have no idea what I’m doing here” when trying to calm a crying baby). I have Impostor Syndrome in my clinical work (“What is that rash? Why can’t I diagnose it? What is wrong with me? I know nothing”). And most of all, I have Academic Impostor Syndrome.
At that point, I managed to say to myself, “Why, hello there. I thought you had gone”. But our habitual thinking strengthens the neural pathways that lead to neuroses like this. It doesn’t take much for something to trigger IS and then Wham! I descend into an ocean of self-doubt.
But the noticing, the work with the Lovely Psychologist had clearly not been in vain. I kept my composure and carried on talking with Nice Bearded Man. We exchanged ideas. We agreed. We disagreed. We ended with a plan. We were both excited.
I spent a lot of time reflecting after that episode. It kind of clicked when my mother (bless her soul) sent me a WhatsApp message about a conversation she had with her periodontist. “I am afraid I was boasting about you” she said. “I told him you have three degrees. You are a triple doctor. He was amazed!” And it’s quite true. I have a medical degree. A Chinese Medicine degree. A Masters. A PhD. I hold senior leadership positions. I am a GP. I have toilet trained two children. When am I going to feel like I am worthwhile? When I’m a Professor? When I grow a beard? What if I get to Professor and start comparing myself to the other Professors in the room, thinking “I don’t belong here”? Why can’t I believe my dear mother and Nice Bearded Man?
So I decided that I’m done with Impostor Syndrome. I’m done with this because:
– I’m no good to anyone if I don’t believe in myself. What’s the point in being so self-deprecating?
– I’m disrespecting other people’s judgement by not believing in what they say. My boss, for example, constantly gushes over how wonderful he thinks I am. I have always put this down to him being an absolutely nice guy. But isn’t this disrespectful to him? Surely, being the Director of an Institute, he’s quite capable of evaluating his staff!
– The energy I spend on my misery could be translated to becoming even more awesome!
– I should just accept that lots of successful people have Impostor Syndrome and they survived. Like Albert Einstein who said “The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease.”
– if I avoid promoting myself, I only let others who are less deserving get ahead of me.
Of course, I’m all for recognising where I can improve. I don’t want to end up with a false sense of security and supremacy. But the story of my life so far has been the opposite – a lifetime of never being satisfied with what I’ve done, always pushing for perfection, setting the bar higher and higher.
So I’ve decided that what’s good enough for Albert is good enough for me. I’m enjoying this new collaboration with Nice Bearded Man. And it’s great to feel that my lack of facial hair, age, the Professor title, the 200 publications and a white coat doesn’t mean that I can’t contribute meaningfully to a collaboration.
There’s a lot I can bring to the table as Small Woman with No Facial Hair and Only Ten Publications.