‘Have a bl**dy word with yourself, Shaun…’ or An ornithological guide to self-survival

How’s it going?

I had one of THOSE days the other week. You know the ones…the kind of days you instantly want to forget but will be drudged up as an old war story in years to come. One to tell the grandkids. Or an entry in your journal you never get round to writing, or an anecdote in a pub when I’m retired and past caring.

The day started fine enough. I didn’t skip breakfast; I was up to speed on emails and knew where I needed to be and what I had to do. That was 8am.

By 8.10am, it all changed.

It wasn’t one bombshell phone call or a single testy email. It was one of those ‘death by a thousand cuts’ jobs. Colleagues, reporters, politicians all queuing up – like planes circling Gatwick – to tell me what I’d done wrong (we’ll come to that in a minute), what I could do better (ditto) and how others are doing the job elsewhere better than me.

Sound familiar? Course it does. Whether you’re a comms professional, CEO, Director, Manager or whoever… it goes with the territory. As Liam once famously drawled: “You gotta roll with it.”

But that day, I found it exceptionally hard to roll with it. I made the fatal mistake of taking it personally and, perhaps more fatally than fatal, reacting by withdrawing into my own shell and listening to that little voice that’s in us all (no matter how loud or quiet) that I’m just simply not good enough.

I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression from a relatively early age. I’m ok about talking about it – not because of how mental health is being talked about nowadays – but because it’s part of me and who I am and, consequently, oversharing is one by-product of my anxiety.

8.10am had been and gone and I found myself taking an early evening walk along a stretch of river close to where I live with the peace and quiet of the trees and birds and the odd dog walker. I often walk this stretch just so I can think. I think A LOT. Another by-product…

After spending a considerable amount of time replaying events and conversations of that day over and over in my head, I saw in the distance a magpie flutter from a tree and land on the banking. I absentmindedly saluted it. (I do that regularly. Do you do that? I’m not superstitious, I’ve just always done it). As I got closer, I realised it wasn’t a magpie at all. It was a dove or pigeon or something…(I’m not Bill Oddie. IT WAS A BIRD OF SOME DESCRIPTION).

Ornithological metaphors aside, the point is this: what I thought was true in my head (magpie) was actually something completely different (reality).

Were the Gatwick planes circling around me really telling me I was doing wrong, that I could do better, or was it me misinterpreting that?

Without even realising it, we interpret and give our own meanings to everything happening around us. We tend to automatically believe our thoughts, usually not stopping to question their legitimacy. Thoughts are not necessarily true, accurate or helpful. They are often based on emotion (rather than facts), which in turn drives our opinion.

Writer David Foster Wallace gave a famous speech to college graduates on the “blind certainty” of thought and said “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think…” If you haven’t already, read him. And his speech which you can do here).

So after my encounter with said bird, I now think and behave very differently to how I did before. I now take time out for myself. I read. I write. I listen more and think less. But I still go for walks. And every so often I’m greeted by a bird who drops down in front of me to say hello. Perhaps it’s the same one.

Thanks for taking the time to read.

p.s – I also like listening to music while I walk. Below is my playlist for this week. Hope you like…

Shaun Gibbons is the Communications Manager for South Holland District Council, and the Communications Lead for Lincolnshire Resilience Forum

Take a walk – playlist by Shaun Gibbons


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