Sally says goodbye… from the Sunday Times
Usually, this column takes the form of a letter from you to me, but this week, it is the other way around. This is my last column as your “agony aunt”, a position that has brought me both pleasure and comfort. This may seem at odds with my reputation for being fierce, but along the way I have come to understand that platitudes are of no use to anybody. I could say, it’s OK, hand you a tissue and pat you on the back, but that leaves none of us the wiser. It is not OK and the reason, on the whole, is ourselves or how we are looking at a particular situation.
So here are some of the things that I have been banging on about for the past eight years: resentment, self-pity, blame and emotional responsibility. Resentment is corrosive, it eats into our hearts and souls and lives. It consumes our every waking hour, and if there is one thing that is truly damaging to our emotional health, it is that.
It is all too easy to allocate blame, but, in the end, it becomes a prison of our own making. Yes, somebody may be at fault, but the fault happened days or even weeks ago, and only through our own thoughts do we keep it alive. We cannot change people, places or things, the only thing we can change is how we respond to them and by taking responsibility for our own behaviour. It may be painful to come face-to-face with the fact that the people for whom we reserve our deepest resentment actually don’t care. They are not carrying the burden of those emotions and, while they may feel guilt, they are getting on with their lives while we slowly suffocate under the weight of our feelings.
In order to write a reply to your letters, I was forced to face my most uncomfortable truths
We, and not them, are responsible for how we behave. This is when, more often than not, I get into trouble.
We are not used to taking responsibility (“Why should I? They did it to me”), so our default position is blame. We might hate our mothers (a recurring theme in your letters), but we often lose sight of the fact that it is up to us, not them, to put boundaries in place, the most important of which is the word “no”. It is not a word we like because people might not like us. Well, they might not, but without boundaries, there will be no respect and they will trample roughshod over our most tender feelings. And so we enter the vicious cycle of resentment, blame and self-pity.
Here’s another word that enters into the vocabulary of self-responsibility: “Sorry.” It is not to be used carelessly because it is an action and not just a word. We can say it time and again, but unless we show regret through thoughtful deeds, it is meaningless.
Humility (another word that gets me into trouble for seeming too harsh) does not mean humbling or humiliating ourselves; instead, it is the strength to take responsibility for our mistakes and to admit to them.
As for self-pity, we run from victims, lest we be caught in their cloying embrace and their ceaseless, circular stories that always end on the same page: me, myself and I. They are, in effect, self-centred — which is another word people hate, because they confuse it with being selfish. Selfish is a hoarding word; self-centred means concentrating on ourselves to the exclusion of all others — our feelings, and ours alone, matter. We are naturally self-centred because we inhabit our own minds. We have our faces pressed to the mirror so the only reflection we can see is ourselves. But what if we take a step back and change our perspective?
That is where I have come in. I have been a sounding board, an echo that might resonate in a different dimension. And you, as strange as this may sound because I’m the one who gets to talk, have been my most important and precious teachers. Every time I received a letter, the problem always resonated in some part of me. In order to write a reply, I was forced to face my most uncomfortable truths.
I am intolerant, impatient (generally with myself) and apt to get things completely out of proportion. I can seethe with resentment and I can fixate on blame, until I realise, after pondering that same issue for hours at my desk, it is the very same trap I can fall into so easily.
So, it has been a two-way street and it was always a joy when we met in the middle. Thank you for your letters of gratitude over the years; and to those who have stopped me to say they loved the writing. The memory lingers like a favourite scent. I hope I have helped a few people, but you have helped me far more than you will ever know. For which, many thanks.