My grandmother—forever known as Nanny to her dozens of grandchildren, and who died in 2013 at the age of 93—had great wisdom, amassed from her 9+ decades of paying close attention to the world and everyone in it.
She used to say, when it came to relationships and finding someone suitable, or even finding The One:
There’s ne’er an aul’ shoe but there’s an aul’ sock to fit it.
In other words, no matter who we are, no matter what our unique sensibilities and skills and experiences and preferences, there is always someone who can become our perfect match.
And I think this fits in many other ways, not just relationships.
It starts with knowing ourselves.
Self-awareness, self-knowledge through self-exploration and self-experimentation, might seem like a whole lot of focus on “self”, but it’s a critical part of understanding our place in the world.
We are all heavily influenced by our environment. Traditionally we have been exposed to social norms and conformities at our family, local or provincial level, and breaking out of those norms and conformities always held some level of danger. Yes, someone who chose to remove the constraints of local norms could, over time and with some level of vision and charisma, go on to become a local leader, someone who sees new and better ways of doing things and may well be followed by others who recognise those benefits.
At least equally likely, however, was the risk of being ousted from the tribe or community. Such risks are now insignificant. The tribe or community offered a substantial part of our security and status and livelihood, and the risk of being removed from it was enough to keep us in check.
Being inside the camp looking out was always preferable than being outside the camp looking in.
These days, those cultural norms have mushroomed out of all recognition. Our community used to be limited to our own small cohort, but these days our community can become a global one via the viral effect of Internet connectivity and social media feeds. Those wider sensibilities can now impose a sort of “correctness” on us everywhere we go (I intentionally avoid using the phrase “political correctness”; that’s a whole other topic, and a loaded one at that).
What this imposed “correctness” does, however, is promote the preferences and needs of the group at the expense of the individual.
That is hugely problematic, because imposing the self—imposing multiple “selfs”—to the criteria of cultural norms, often on a national and increasingly on an international or even global scale, restricts us from the sort of self-reflection, self-exploration and self-experimentation that gives us our sense of self-awareness.
For me, investing in myself has brought all the most beneficial elements and moments of the past two years of this journey from two decades of feeling depression (two decades in which I presented a mask to the world to avoid judgment or recrimination), and discovering a sense of realness, integrity and happiness in my own skin.
I can absolutely say that while the periods of depression—the major depressive episodes, as they might be described in clinical language—have come and gone with something approaching reliable regularity, I am more comfortable in my own skin now than ever before.
It is an experience I heartily recommend for others, because even when the darkness comes these days, it is never accompanied with the same sense of hopelessness that was normal for me for many years.
When depression comes now, it is in a slightly different form. It is black and penetrating and it taints everything, from my opinion of myself to my thought processes to my energy and ability to focus to, most painfully, my relationship with my wife Lorraine, whose well of patience is deep but which I cannot expect to be bottomless; but there is one thing that is completely new in the depression I feel now, two years into this journey, to the depression I felt through my teens, 20s and 30s: when it comes upon me now, I am never hopeless.
I know I need to make some changes. I know that the changes will be hard, so hard that they feel almost impossible. I know that I will have to search hard, both externally and within, to find a map that might help me chart a way through making those changes.
I often feel like I can’t go on. I often feel like I can’t do the thing I need to do. I often struggle even to identify the thing I need to do.
But when I settle into it, when I feel the feeling and try to just keep moving (moving both figuratively and literally), I know that hope is constant.
I am confident rarely but hopeful almost always.
Doing the self-work required may well be seen as selfishness, but it’s a conscious selfishness. Perhaps “self-fulness” is a better way of describing it. Either way, “self-fulness”, or conscious selfishness, is usually a net positive contribution, because it unearths the skills and talents and passions that we can bring to the world, the skills and talents and passions that stack up to be our own individual and unique contribution.
One of the things that is most apparent to me from three decades of dealing with other people, through school and college and work and business and side-projects and conferences and events and coaching and conversations of all kinds, is just how very different we all are.
If we can accept the magnitude of our differences from one another, it follows then that we should be able to accept the very things that make us different, right?
Investing time in that self-exploration to create awareness for our differences is extraordinarily powerful and empowering.
When I look at a room full of clutter and papers and disorganisation, I see all the stress and baggage and hardship.
When Lorraine looks at it, she sees possibility and clarity and healing, like the sculptor who can visualise the finished work of art from a block of stone.
I can take comfort in a screen of colourful HTML code, which makes Lorraine run for cover.
It is worth investing in fully accepting these differences. Firstly to recognise the strengths and skills that add up to the unique version of us; secondly to identify the things that we would like to improve, things that we can improve, things that are worth improving; and finally, just to let the rest of our imperfections go.
That takes time and reflection and thought and effort and emotional labour.
But it can bring us to what I’ve started calling the Harmony Zone: the set of activities that we take pleasure in doing and which also bring value to others, so that we can pursue them for our own gain and for the gain of some corner of humanity.
There are three other zones in this framework.
The Hostage Zone, where our time, effort or activities might be bringing some value to someone but which are giving us no pleasure ourselves.
The Hobby Zone, where we get some pleasure but which adds little value or makes little contribution to the greater good.
And the Heartache Zone, where our activities give us little pleasure and likewise give little value to the world.
If we’re honest—and I admit that for this purpose most of my qualitative evidence comes from an experimental subset of one: me—it’s fair to say that too much of our time is spent outside the Harmony Zone.
But taking the time to identify the activities and pursuits that might bring us there, and letting go of as much of the rest as we conceivably can, could well lead us onto a pathway to a life of fulfilment, contribution and happiness.
The best bit?
My Harmony Zone will look so different to yours. In fact, there are things in my Heartache that could fit snugly into your Harmony, and vice-versa.
Knowing what they are: that’s up to us to find out.
Because there’s always an old sock to fit every old shoe.
This post first appeared as an essay for my monthly email newsletter subscribers. It’s free. You can sign up to receive a new essay (and other bits!) on the first Friday of every month here.