OPINION: Why the amazing Lady Glenconner is my new role model
- Credit: Archant
Following on the theme of my last column, which was about seeking a buddy when your confidence is low, I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of make believe as a tool to boost our mental health.
Last week, I had an interesting conversation with a psychiatrist. He said there’s a good case to be made for pretending to be happier or more confident than we are.
He has been trying this out with depressed patients and finds it really works. He says that when they act happy, they often suddenly realise that they’re feeling happy too.
Certainly, as a therapist, I’ve often taken phone calls from clients who were feeling very low and too miserable to leave the house.
Despite their reluctance, I’d invariably encourage them to get some exercise, by going for a walk.
They would usually tell me that they couldn’t face going out. I’d sympathise but suggest that since they already felt really, really bad it was unlikely that anything they did would make them feel worse – and that a change of tactic might even help a bit.
‘Let’s pretend you want to go,’ I’d say. And sometimes, reluctantly, they would agree to venture outside, often for the first time in days. Mostly, they reported afterwards that their mood had improved. As you might know, there’s science behind this.
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Physical activity is noted for generating more ‘feel good’; chemicals, called endorphins, in our bloodstreams and these genuinely lift our spirits.
So, pretence is not new. Indeed, we’ve probably all resorted to it on occasions. Have you ever given yourself a talking to and told yourself to pull your shoulders back and smile when meeting someone you felt nervous about? I certainly have.
And you can take it a stage further. Instead of just pretending that you feel better than you do, you can do a bit of play acting by imitating how you think someone you admire would behave. In other words, model yourself on someone who does well what you find difficult.
I have had a lot of role models during my life.
In my early days as an agony aunt in the 1990s, I was often asked to give talks to organisations, which would fill me with dread.
After all, there were a lot of formidable women who had been agony aunts for ages, and I felt I would come up short beside their reputations.
But my husband, who knew that I hero-worshipped Claire Rayner, would say to me: "Just ask yourself what Claire would do, and you’ll be fine."
And immediately I’d picture this large, confident, extravert and capable woman launching into an entertaining speech, and it always helped.
I once had a client – a sensitive, timid man who was hesitant and nervous around new people, especially women. He wanted to get married and settle down and have a family, but if he liked someone, he usually made a total mess of asking her if she’d have a drink with him.
One day, I asked him to tell me if he could think of someone he found inspirational; someone whose behaviour he could perhaps try to copy.
My client was very bookish and keen on classical music, so I was expecting him to name an individual or two with arts backgrounds. But no.
His whole face lit up and he told me how much he loved cricket, and in particular, the player David Gower.
I asked him why, and he answered that Mr Gower was tall, elegant, a wonderful sportsman, at ease with people and a good talker. In other words, he excelled in everything my client found difficult, which made him the perfect role model.
My client went into his next social occasion with his usual trepidation, but despite his nervousness, he determinedly visualised David Gower and tried to act like him.
He smiled. He stood taller. And he asked people about themselves and listened to them too.
Somehow, by emulating his hero, he seemed to lose his normal self-consciousness and became more relaxed and sociable. He didn’t, of course, become a smooth, charming conversationalist over night, but he did stop worrying about himself so much, and when he did that, he learned that he could enjoy being in company and act more naturally.
So, I’m all for role models. My current one is Lady Glenconner.
A week ago, I had the great privilege of interviewing her at a book event in Norwich. She is 89 and unstoppable! Following the huge success of her memoir, Lady In Waiting, she used the various lockdowns to write two novels. How amazing is that?
I feel totally inspired and enthused by her and she gives me hope that, being 15 years her junior, I still have the time and energy to achieve more of my own dreams and goals.
In fact, since interviewing her, I’ve been on a real high.
That’s the mark of a great role model, wouldn’t you say?