Philippa Perry has shared her biggest life lessons

·6-min read
Photo credit: Danny Martindale - Getty Images
Photo credit: Danny Martindale - Getty Images

After 8 years as Red's agony aunt, psychotherapist Philippa Perry is moving on. Here, she looks back at what she has learned from answering almost 100 of your dilemmas, and leaves us with some final words of wisdom. Philippa, it’s been an honour... and we will miss you terribly.

Since 2013, I have had the privilege of reading your letters and emails and replying to them. And, sadly, this is my last column as I’m going to pastures new. Maybe I’m making a terrible mistake. I’m leaving a job I love for a job that is an unknown quantity. We never know what something will be like until we try it.

I’ve had letters from you on this theme, too. You’ve chased a dream that turned into a nightmare. You dreamed of living in the country, marrying your best friend, having children, not having children, working at this job and that job... and, so often, the reality of that dream has not lived up to the expectation of it, and then you blamed yourself for not knowing this would happen.

I’ve always said, ‘you had no way of knowing the unknown’, and ‘well done for taking the plunge’, and ‘all lives can be seen as a series of mistakes’. We have a dream, we find out it was a mistake, we correct that mistake and learn from it, we go on to make another decision, it works for a while and then, after a time, we need to make another adjustment.

Another theme that has come up time and time again in your emails to me, has been you being hard on yourselves. Oh boy, we can give ourselves such a hard time. I’m going to quote from some emails I got this very morning: ‘I consider myself to be a moral and physical coward who runs away from life’s problems’, and: ‘I know I am not a nice person and I’m just bad, but I don’t want to be.’

This is not unusual. Every monthI’m told: ‘I’m no good at relationships,’ ‘I’m a terrible friend,’ ‘I’m not a clever person,’ ‘I’m too shy’... you get the picture? We don’t need to judge ourselves like this. Yes, we have all made mistakes, but we are not our mistakes; we are learning from them so we can goon to make new mistakes.

It’s not over until it’s over and, until then, we can keep hoping, keep trying and keep experimenting. When we find ourselves making a finite judgement, when we put on that metaphorical black cap and bang the gavel and condemn ourselves, we don’t do ourselves, or other people, any favours. Suspending judgement is nearly always a good idea, whether we are tempted to condemn ourselves or other people.

However, other people are quite often the problem! Partners who are always right can make
lives a misery. No one is always right. I’m not always right. And if you come across someone who thinks they are, there should be an alarm bell ringing for you, because the always-righters somehow have to make us into the always-wrongers – and that is not a nice place to be.

Parents are often the problem – you might be middle-aged – but you are still allowing your parent to steer your life when you should be in the driving seat yourself. You want to be and you can be, but because they don’t believe you can drive, it’s hard for you to have faith in yourself.

You’ve also told me about friends who give you a hard time, bosses who don’t listen and subtle misogynists who have eroded your confidence with a thousand micro-aggressions until you are not even sure if the ground underneath you is the ground, or something you might drown in.

Ach! This shows us that it is a good idea to surround ourselves with people who make us feel positive about ourselves. People who, if they do challenge us, do so in a way that makes us feel enlightened rather than worse, and who are on our side.

Then sometimes, we withdraw because relationships just seem too hard. We have relationships with others solely in our heads, and we imagine their motives, their thoughts and their feelings to be the worst possible. But we never actually check this out with them in reality,so we become our own persecutors, but blame the other person for it. Hey, we’ve all done this. No biggie. And we can stop doing it.

A major topic that cropped up over the years has been our relationships with our children. This one was so big, I had to write a book about it. I’ve come up with a few pointers that are relevant for all relationships. Such as, don’t feel you have to fix things, just listen and ‘don’t deal with, feel with’. I’ve learned that sometimes difficult feelings come out in our actions.

In other words, all behaviour is communication. I have also seen what dead ends we get stuck in when we think one person is right and therefore the other is wrong. But it’s
more complicated than that, and a starting point to understanding can be this: everyone may have a unique experience of the same situation and just because they are different, that doesn’t mean anyone’s viewpoint is less valid.

And maybe one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that it is nearly always better to make ‘I’ statements and not ‘you’ statements. For example: ‘I feel uneasy when you say you’ll text and then you don’t,’ rather than: ‘You never text me.’ ‘I’ statements bring about mutual understanding, whereas ‘you’ statements make us feel defensive when we are on the receiving end.

Of course, we all make mistakes as parents so don’t torture yourself with the refrain: ‘I’m screwing them up!’ Remember, it’s not the mistakes that matter; it’s correcting them that’s important. And probably the biggest help when making any relationship go better is trying to work out what it is like to be the other person and be in a relationship with you. This is always a good idea, whether that other person is a newborn baby or a boss, stranger, friend or relative.

These are just a few of the dilemmas that have filled my inbox every month. Each email has taught me something and, maybe, I might have occasionally helped you to have your own ‘aha moments’, too.

If I had to give just one bit of advice, what would it be? I don’t think I could do better than that doyenne of self-help, Dr Susan Jeffers, who said: ‘You are good enough exactly as you are, and who you are is a powerful and loving human being who is learning and growing every step of the way.’ In other words, you are acceptable just as you are, right now.

Thank you, I’ve loved being here.

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