Living in a topsy turvy world

By Terry Rubenstein
iheart Founder & Head of Education

In one of Roger Hargreaves adorable Mr Men books, we meet ‘Mr Topsy-Turvy’. We learn how, for this unfortunate character, everything is either upside down, inside out or back to front –in fact, it’s always topsy-turvy! As a result, life is very challenging for Mr Topsy-Turvy and everyone around him. He talks backwards; walks ‘up’ the ‘down’ escalator; gets off the wrong side of the train; and generally creates havoc wherever he goes. And to top (pun intended) it off, the poor chap has no idea why he creates such bedlam!

For most of my childhood, teens and early adult life, I felt a lot like Mr Topsy-Turvy.

It was only at the age of 29 that I began to realise how we are essentially born into a ‘topsy-turvy’ world when it comes to mental health. And just like Mr Topsy-Turvy, we find everything is in fact back to front, inside out, and upside down. We often feel clumsy in our efforts to find our mental health and hold onto it, as we sense ourselves moving further away from it despite our best efforts. This can be disheartening and can make life feel hard, bumpy, confusing, anxiety provoking and overwhelming. And like Mr Topsy-Turvy, our attempts to smooth things over or improve things usually land up backfiring, leaving us feeling deflated and often hopeless.

Now, there are some people (though I might add these are a rarer breed then you may think!) who do live in a world that is marginally or sometimes even way more ‘right way’ up. I for sure encountered those people along the way and was quite intrigued – and even a little (a lot, actually!) – jealous of them. They seemed to be more like Mr Clever, Mr Happy, Mr Strong or Little Miss Wise. It confused me. How was it that they didn’t seem to be working so hard to feel comfortable in their own skin? How was it that life seemed smoother and less topsy-turvy for them? Why weren’t they so fearful? What did they know that I didn’t?

For many years I blamed my personality (too intense, too shy, too anxious, too much of a perfectionist – you name it!); my circumstances (over-competitive school environment, tricky social dynamics, difficult family interactions, immigrating to a new country, a miscarriage, and so on…). But to be honest, this narrative began to bore me after a while. Deep down, even I could see the flaws in its logic. These flaws were more fully exposed when I went through a period of voracious reading, delving into memoir after memoir of individuals who had vastly different personalities and/or circumstances. Yet within all their stories, they somehow touched something within them that led to inner peace, resolution and allowed for transformational change. So I began to get curious about this common thread. What was it? Was there actually something reliable innate to all humans that was more powerful, constant and fundamental then our more ‘superficial’ personality traits – our so-called ‘strengths and weaknesses’? If so, what was it? These questions haunted me as I spent much of my days and nights contemplating them. I dreamt them; I slept them; I was consumed by them.

And so, for a whole year, I became a real student of the human experience. I read, I observed, I interviewed, I challenged and essentially – as is common when you do deep self-reflection and enquiry – I learnt loads. And equally importantly, I unlearnt loads.

To simplify what I discovered: as infants, we all practically need the love, care and physical attention of our parents or carers to survive and thrive. However, our minds quickly grab hold of this information and innocently but incoherently apply it to areas where it’s not necessary. It’s like taking 1 + 1 one and arriving at 3. A false equation. Here’s what I mean: our minds mistakenly assume that in order to feel psychologically secure, safe whole, and at peace, we require a whole lot of ‘stuff’. Stuff like validation, appreciation, financial security, good looks, material items, people treating us well … and so the list goes on and on.

Now don’t get me wrong; all these things are really nice to have. But they actually have nothing to do with our wellbeing, which is an unconditional capacity to feel content, resilient, secure and at peace. This might seem radical or even offensive (it did to me at first!) but I came to see it was actually true (and I really tested it out, as you should too). The logic that informs us that our wellbeing and resilience is conditional on ‘stuff’, is actually topsy-turvy itself.

And it has implications for how we think, feel and behave. It leads us down pathways of trying to acquire our wellbeing. It leads us down avenues of insecure thoughts and feelings as we constantly think of ways to protect that wellbeing. We predictably land up controlling, avoiding and overthinking as we outsource our most precious superpower, not realising that this superpower itself is innate – built into each and every one of us. For this logic overlooks the fact that our natural state is wellbeing, which for me means a sense of calm, wise thinking, resilience, optimism, gratitude and love. We are born with it.

So the big question is this: if wellbeing really is innate, why don’t we feel it all the time?

The answer to this needs to be fully and carefully explored, but for now, I will give you the skinny version: our wellbeing gets covered up by insecure thinking that emerges when we outsource it (more next time on how that happens and why that’s normal). But the important life-changing fact is that it doesn’t ever go anywhere. And we for sure don’t need anyone to give it to us – because it’s built in! Which means that no one can take it from us. Wellbeing is fool-proof.

You remember when you were small, and you hugged that teddy bear, and everything felt better? Well, in the topsy-turvy world, it seemed as if a stuffed toy with beady eyes was putting those feelings of comfort into you. But if we were to ask Little Miss Wise, she would tell you that this isn’t possible and that you were simply feeling your innate wellbeing at that moment. Those feelings were coming from inside you, NOT from a stuffed animal (which kind of makes sense, and I don’t in any way mean to be disrespectful to Pandy, Chloe and Fred, my nine-year-old’s stuffed sleeping friends). If only someone could have told you that. What a difference it would have made!

Same goes for the adult teddy bears that replaced our childhood teddies as we matured – holidays and people and events (you choose!) – that seemed to make you feel peaceful and content. It was never those things. Because whether you like it or not, it was always coming from inside you. You were feeling what was and is always there in you. And by the way, that explains why those same things and people oftentimes disappointingly don’t make you feel good (ever been on a holiday and felt agitated or bored?).

Part of my exit from living exclusively in topsy-turvy world was appreciating that it wasn’t my fault that the world looked this way, i.e., that wellbeing seemed to be something I was lacking and needed to be acquired and protected, rather than something that was inbuilt and could never be damaged, lost broken to stolen. It really does seem that way. On first or even second glance, innate wellbeing seems counter-intuitive, whereas conditional wellbeing seems more intuitive. Which is why we need to take a third or fourth glance and challenge – respectfully – the current narrative. We need to educate and re-educate ourselves and our children. Or else there will be an ongoing legacy of living in a topsy-turvy world, while we spend enormous effort, time and resources trying to make it work better. But it can’t. It’s all upside down, inside out and the wrong way round!

To be honest, even after what I’ve learnt, it still looks topsy-turvy to me a lot of the time. But knowing that it isn’t this way, in truth, straightens me up somewhat. This deep knowledge brings a perspective, a hope, and a road map that continues to inform and redirect me. And even on the days when I find myself going ‘up’ the ‘down’ escalator, it allows me to do so with the confidence that I have everything I need inside of me.

This incredibly liberating understanding allows me to laugh out loud at the unfortunate adventures of Mr Topsy Turvy, who is nothing more than a confused fictional character in a charming little book

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