Twenty books: sharing a story

I approached the publisher of Bird Therapy, Unbound, a few weeks ago to ask if I could have some copies of my book to send out to organisations working and supporting with mental health. Chris from Team4Nature tweeted out for me to ask for nominations and we got over 60 in the end. I sat down and chose 20 last week, which is how many books Unbound gifted me (bloody awesome!) Below are the names of the 20 organisations, their website links, where they’re based and who nominated them.

1. The Welcome Project – Surrey. Nominated by Steve Pont.

2. Life at Number 27 – Oxfordshire. Nominated by NickRPhotography

3. South West Samaritans – Cornwall. Nominated by Norma Hines.

4. Harmeny Education Trust – Midlothian. Nominated by Lesley Totten.

5. Lancashire NHS Trust – Lancashire. Nominated by Kat Taylor.

6. NNUH Library – Norfolk. Nominated by ‘Charlotte’

7. Combat Stress – national. Nominated by multiple people.

8. Teens+ Scotland – Scotland. Nominated by Fi Brown.

9. Johnny’s Happy Place – Northamptonshire. Nominated by Marie Morrison

10. Ullapool Men’s Shed – Ross, Scotland. Nominated by Finlay Pringle.

11. CPFT NHS Trust – Northamptonshire. Nominated by Maggie Barker.

12. Nene Park – Northamptonshire. Nominated by Charron Pugsley-Hill

13. eQeltd – Greater Manchester. Nominated by Dave Barker.

14. West Norfolk Mind – Norfolk. Nominated by ‘Turtledove Norfolk’

15. Brackenhurst Campus Library – Nottinghamshire. Nominated by ‘BrackLibraryCat’

16. Jeremy Squire at RSPB Loch Leven – Perthshire. Anonymous nomination.

17. Bridewell Gardens – Oxfordshire. Nominated by Daisy Tyson Taylor.

18. Arts in Care Homes – National. Self-nomination.

19. Herts Mind – Hertfordshire. Nominated by ‘HeathDweller’

20. Hellesdon Hospital MBU – Norfolk. Nominated by Sarah Parton.

The vicious cycle of the vanity metric

I’ve been reading more and more about social media and it’s impact on wellbeing. The more I read, the more I recognise traits and behaviours in myself and in others that are unhealthy (to say the least) and the more my desire grows to investigate and share my reading with you. This week, the topic I’ve been researching is ‘self-esteem and social media’ and those of you that have been following my posts about my issues with Twitter will know that this is an area I’ve been struggling with.

Self esteem is our perception of who we are and we can only have high self esteem when we consolidate this in our own minds. A lot of this stems from the feedback we receive from others – simply – the more we feel accepted by others, the more positive our self-perception is likely to be and thus, the better we feel about ourselves. Positive feedback and interactions from others, (or ‘social rewards’) trigger dopamine production – a neurotransmitter that stimulates and motivates reward-based actions and also makes us feel good. So it’s easy to see how we can get stuck striving for impossible attainments, socially.

The other problem is that social media is skewed, by us and by its makers, to only present a sugar-coated, rose-tinted representation of life. We share ‘peak’ experiences, making social media a highlights showreel of amazing and often unattainable things. Basically, in constructing this perfect vision of the world we want people to see us living in, we often choreograph our posts (in some cases, obsessively) to ensure we get the most social reward from them. Therefore, we alter the way we are behaving in reality to create an unreality of ourselves – another version for social media, if you like.

Social rewards on social media take the form of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. People like what we post and want to share it with others, this validates our self-esteem, dopamine is released, we feel good and the cycle starts again. These are called ‘vanity metrics’ and yes, they may make us feel good, but researchers and analysts know they don’t actually mean or measure anything. We place value on what is essentially a false economy – it’s fascinating behaviour.

Naturally, we begin to compare ourselves with others and this can make us feel like we are inadequate. Social comparison theory was founded in the 50’s by Leon Festinger and is so relevant to social media use now. It states that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against other people. Through social media – with its filters and hyper-connectivity – we can end up comparing all aspects of our lives – achievements, holidays, experiences etc, but we also compare how people ‘rate’ what we share; through their interactions with it and so begins a vicious cycle.

Subsequently, we then try harder to fashion more interesting ‘content’ and in a quest for social rewards we can sometimes create what is almost a doubly false reality and narrative for ourselves. How to break this? Well, I’m currently reevaluating my sense of self. I’d been looking at the Bird Therapy twitter through an account I made especially to check it. On Monday 16th at 6am, I looked for the last time. I stopped looking at the accounts that I constantly compare myself too and I’ve stuck to it. I already feel a million times better about pretty much everything. It’s crazy how much of an effect the striving for social rewards and acceptance can have on your wellbeing. As I reframe these expectations and desires, I can appreciate my own achievements for what they mean to me and not what other people think about them. That feels seriously good. From ludic loops to vanity metrics – I’m getting there!

Breaking the ludic loop – the reframing of a relationship

I’m finally starting to make positive breakthroughs in my perceptions and behaviours related to my social media use. Longtime followers will know that I’ve been struggling with this for years now and I’ve been working on reframing my relationship with it a lot more intensively in recent months. If you haven’t read any of my previous reflections then I’ll summarise here. I battle with a heady mix of ‘delusions of grandeur’ and ‘imposter syndrome’, which essentially means that I often think I’m more important than I am but then flip into the complete opposite mindset – that I’m worthless.

I know that these are both symptomatic of the other mental health issues I grapple with, and what is usually required is a detox from the online world so I can reengage with the real one. This is what I’m doing at the moment. It also leads to a deep resentment and jealousy of successful and popular people – which again, works in tandem with both of the above ‘heady mixes’ – bringing anxiety, self-loathing and worthlessness into the mix, which then becomes a desire to gain attention again. It’s a fascinating process and being able to self-reflect and deconstruct it is something I find both cathartic and petrifying.

The progress I’ve noted this week is that on two occasions, I’ve wanted to send a tweet to Chris from T4N who kindly looks after my twitter account. Instead of sending it to him, I’ve text him and discussed the urge to post for attention. The next step will be to address the behaviour that leads to the compulsion, which is obsessively checking certain peoples accounts and comparing myself to them. A lot of this comes down to ‘getting a grip’ and focusing on what matters – my daughter, family and my career but I lose sight of this and talking to Chris about what’s happening has been incredibly helpful.

Negative social media use, whilst still just a proposed psychological disorder, is in my opinion, very real. I’ve been reading about ‘ludic loops’ – a tactic employed by the gambling industry and also by social media site designers. They apply to addictive experiences and are described as this lulled state of tranquility where you just keep doing the thing over and over again. In gambling, it’s the repeated act win or no win, in social media it can be the act of scrolling, of posting, of obsessing over likes and shares or simply just checking our phone/app. In-fact, I’ve written before about it taking a few days for my finger to stop residually trying to press the Twitter app button when I remove it from my phone. Supposedly, these algorithmic designs give us just enough taste of a reward to continue with the behaviour. Over-and-over.

It’s scary. It’s a nightmare, but it’s really interesting too and I hope that as I continue reading, researching and thus, addressing these issues, I’ll reframe my relationship enough to be content. We will see.

Epic podcast chat with Jonny ‘Dovestep’ Rankin

A few days ago, I spent a couple of hours in the evening having a really good chat with Jonny Rankin of Dovestep fame (he also contributed to Bird Therapy too). We talk about a lot of non-birding stuff as well – but it was great to chat to him about mental health, birdwatching and social media.

You can listen here

Life without likes

Over the past six weeks I’ve had to dip in and out of using Twitter for reasons (many) that I’ve written about on here before. I noticed that my behaviour regarding Twitter was becoming very obsessive and cyclic and had begun to impact on my mental health in a big way. I also noticed that during the times I haven’t been using it, I’ve felt so relaxed and transparent that I’ve finally been able to make a massive and important decision, that might seem foolish to some but for me, at this time, is the right one. 

I’ve completely accepted that I’m never going to be able to regulate my actions and responses on social media. I will always compare myself to other people and feel worthless in doing so. I will always obsess over likes and retweets and treat it as the only validation that’s worthwhile. Whatever I do, is never going to be enough for me and this leads to cyclic negative thought processes that, put bluntly, are doing my head in. Those who’ve read the book will have further insight into this pattern. 

To be honest with you, I’m quite sick of feeling like this and if I HAD to continue using social media, then I’d consider accessing some talking therapy to try and rectify these issues. However, the simple fact is that I don’t HAVE to use it and so whilst weighing up the pros and cons and considering the impact on me and Bird Therapy – I’ve accepted that I’ve come to the end of a massive chapter in this journey and to disappear, leaving the book to do what I set out to do, help people, is enough. 

Too many strive for acceptance. Courting controversy for attentions sake, wallowing in their own achievements and pasting them for all to see – and I’ve been guilty of this so much. It’s taken me many years to realise – but everyone is out there for themselves. I learnt this when Bird Therapy was published and almost the entire nature writing ‘community’ didn’t even mention it. People whose work I’ve loved and shared on social media myself. Blanked. Someone even told me that I shouldn’t post reviews of my own book as it’s seen as bad etiquette. I mean, what the hell!? It’s my book – am I not allowed to be proud of a good review?

Anyway. I’ve done all the above, behaved in these toxic ways and repeated the cycle over and over – but not any more. It takes up too much of my brain energy. Brain energy better spent in areas of my life that actually care and reciprocate – family, friends, work and birds. At the end of the Winterwatch film I did in January, I said that if Bird Therapy helped just one person in their own battles with mental health, then it would be job done. Well enough people have shared with me, how much it’s helped them, so perhaps it’s time for me to let it properly unfurl it’s wings and fly out into the world. 

I can’t decide whether to leave the account open or not, as I feel I’m letting down the dedicated followers who made the book real, but what’s the point? I’ll only obsess about the follower count going down over time as others grow and grow, it’ll eat away at me and I don’t want or need that. So here we are. I don’t know when or if I’ll bring myself to deactivate it, but think I might need to as an act of closure, I think.

I’m still here though, you can email me anytime at birdtherapy@hotmail.co.uk and I’ll never stop writing my blog as it’s the journal accompanying my ongoing road to wellness. 

I have a few cool things happening at the moment. I’ve just written features for the Guardian and BBC Wildlife Magazine, I had some photos taken for the Guardian article yesterday, which was particularly cringeworthy! There’s a feature I wrote about writing the book, in the next issue of Birdwatching magazine, which I believe is already out to subscribers – I’ve not seen it yet though. I also went into three Norwich bookshops yesterday (Jarrolds, Book Hive and Waterstones) and signed all the copies of Bird Therapy on the shelf. Below are some of events I’ve got coming up:

  • 8th and 9th August I’m recording the audiobook for Bird Therapy. 
  • Friday 16th August at 3pm I’m signing copies of Bird Therapy with Chris Packham at the Birdfair – Wildsounds stand 
  • Saturday 17th August – 1130 I’m signing copies of Bird Therapy at the Birdfair – Wildsounds stand 
  • Saturday 17th August 13:45-14:30 I’m speaking in the authors forum at Birdfair and then signing some books after. 
  • Thursday 29th August – evening in conversation with Nick Acheson at NWT Cley. 
  • Tuesday 22nd October – speaking at Norwich Science Festival.

No doubt there’ll be some other stuff too, but if you see it then great and if you don’t, for once I won’t be ramming it into your eye sockets via twitter. Twitter followers – you’ve carried me through all of this and I’ve enjoyed engaging with you all. I’ve tried so hard to respond and interact with you all and I’m so sorry I can’t carry on with it. Much love. Joe.