A change of personality can happen over tea


MIND MOVES:An encounter in a guesthouse gave a woman new strength

PEOPLE CAN surprise you, especially when we allow them to and when we believe in them enough.

And we can surprise ourselves, whenever we move beyond the way we have labelled and limited ourselves for years. Whenever we step out from behind the protective cloak of our defences and allow ourselves to do something we have never believed we could.

I saw this happen recently when I stayed at a guesthouse close to one of my favourite places in this country. It was high summer and the Olympics were in full swing.

Guesthouses draw an unusual mixture of people and the group assembled around the tea table was no exception. Conversation flowed freely between us as we tucked into a feast of homemade cooking.

When a new arrival joined us at the tea table, the word that came into my mind was fragile. She was tall but she had a practised stoop that I imagined was intended to prevent her from standing out. She had a kind smile, but she avoided eye contact. Clearly she felt nervous at joining our company.

I asked her the usual questions people ask to welcome a new member into a group and help them feel at home. At first her answers were brief and revealed very little about her life. Others joined in to include her and, much to my surprise, she opened up about herself in a very personal way.

She told us she was in her late 30s and that she had had a long history of emotional problems for which she had received help for years. And then she volunteered her reasons for checking into this guesthouse overnight.

She was “the victim of antisocial behaviour”. She lived nearby in a small town where she was renting a room in a house on the ground floor. Her neighbours upstairs were incredibly noisy.

They played loud music every night and she couldn’t sleep. The past few nights, their behaviour had particularly got to her and she decided to get out before she “lost it completely”. So she checked in to this guesthouse to give her nerves a break and to get a decent night’s sleep.

She had approached her noisy neighbours on a number of occasions and pleaded with them to turn down the music, but they had shut the door on her. She felt and looked completely helpless. In my mind’s eye I was looking at a future scenario where all this would end in tears.

And then something happened that changed all that. A young man who worked nearby stopped in to say hello. He was a confident extrovert, who was clearly well loved by his old friends at the table. He introduced himself to this lady and said that she looked like someone who could go a round or two with Katie Taylor.

I commented that this was one of the worst chat-up lines that I had ever heard.

But he wasn’t joking. He meant what he said and he remained convinced even when we recounted the gist of the story she had been telling us for the past hour.

He then asked her if she had ever confronted her neighbours. Of course she had. But he persisted and asked her to show us exactly how she had approached them. Her demonstration was that of a desperate woman pleading for mercy. I wasn’t surprised her neighbour had closed the door.

So he showed her how he would tackle a situation like this, how he would position his body, drop his chin and make a clear ask of this man.

He then invited her to role-play her request in a respectful assertive way. At first, she was either too passive or too aggressive. But they persisted with this little psychodrama and before long I saw this woman confront this man in a clear respectful way. He didn’t make it easy for her and dismissed her requests as ridiculous. But she persisted and, with practice, she showed she could match his forcefulness with strength and conviction.

Our little troupe around the tea table joined in, prompting her with the odd phrase, cheering her when she hit the right note and letting her know we believed she had both the right and the ability to be as assertive as she needed to be.

She had found her inner Katie Taylor, and we had stopped seeing her as vulnerable. In that short space of time her image of herself changed. She no longer looked or spoke like a victim. And we no longer saw her as one.

Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health ( headstrong.ie)

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