An image from the film 10 Things I hate about you, showing Heath Ledger, and Julia Styles lovingly gazing into one another’s eyes. Because I love that film and the title of this blog is a good excuse to use an image from it.
In this 8th episode, season two, of the Mindful Writer, author and blogger, Anneliese Knop tells me about her life with seeing dog, Greta, and shares many words of wisdom. It really is a fascinating interview.
Before I introduce you, let me tell you about my writing journey. Yesterday I wrote The End. Woo Hoo. It’s a fantastic feeling when you finish writing the first draft of a novel. The idea for writing about a sunken village has been with me for about seven years, after seeing an image of a church spire in the middle of a reservoir. I knew it would not go away until I found my story. It took several months of playing with ideas, then a visit to Yorkshire to visit the reservoir, before everything clicked into place and I had the outline for a story. I started writing it soon after Christmas aiming to complete the first draft by the end of March, so I am ahead of schedule. There’s lots more work to do. I always say the first draft is you, the writer, telling yourself the story. I do a lot of planning before I write so hopefully it is structurally sound but I will be relying on my developmental editor to tell me what needs fixing. Then starts the first round of edits.
In the meantime, I will be preparing The Last Act for publication in July.
I am very focused about achieving my goals, but this strength has a downside as my guest this week explains. So, let me introduce you.
Anneliese Knop, is an author and blogger. She writes fantasy with co-author Galadriel Coffeen and her blog, Look on the Dark Side, gives a fascinating account of her life with seeing dog, Greta. Anneliese was born with a genetic degenerative retinal condition, but this has not limited her in any way. She quotes:
‘Where is it written that all our dreams must be small?’
In this episode Anneliese explains:
- Toxic Positivity
- Toxic Perfectionism
- Why we should love the things we hate about ourselves
- Why dog owners and their dogs might benefit from couple’s counselling.
You can listen to the podcast here: Episode 8, season two: Why you should love the things you hate about you, with author Anneliese Knop
Or read a summary below:
Anneliese has already achieved what some people might consider big dreams, and I don’t doubt there is more to come. I was excited to meet Anneliese and asked her to tell us a little more about herself.
Anneliese explains that genetic degenerative condition means that she is blind. ‘I am passionate about good stories, good mental health for all, and promoting professionalism and career advancement in the blind community.’
I love Anneliese’s blog as it is so informative and well- researched. In one blog post, she discusses toxic perfectionism and toxic positivity. I asked Anneliese to explain these and the impact they can have on a person.
I feel most passionate about Toxic Positivity.
A lot of pressure is put on people, particularly disabled people to put their best foot forward, all the time.
In the disabled community, we put pressure on ourselves and each other not to appear bitter, or angry. We do not want to become an emotional burden as well as a physical one. And we don’t want to give disabled people a bad name.
Toxic positivity is about denying reality – clinging to a positive mindset to the exclusion of the negative or unpleasant sides of reality. An unwillingness to acknowledge that sometimes life is just hard.
We all have bad days, and that is normal. The toxicity comes from denying this reality, which then isolates people and gives them no out-let for finding and giving compassion to one another.
Toxic perfectionism comes from a very healthy desire to be excellent at what one does, that becomes toxic when anything less than perfection is completely unacceptable and triggers anxiety, self-loathing, anger, either turned outward or inward. So, both of these things can come from a good place, but they are taken to unhealthy levels.
I suggest we are perhaps all on a spectrum, from the healthy to unhealthy positivity and perfectionism.
Anneliese agrees, describing how a positive attitude enabled her as a blind person to achieve what seemed like impossible dreams.
There are two sides to every attribute, I observe. What we perceive to be positive attributes can have a negative side and vice versa. I am very motivated, a self-starter, and that is great because I am focused and work hard, but the downside is, I beat myself up when I don’t meet my personal expectations. I am compassionate to other people, but I am not always compassionate to myself.
Anneliese agrees and says that in couples’ counselling, she sometimes asks a couple, what character trait in your partner really annoys you? That trait has always been there, and it is why you fell in love with them. So, which part of this trait is the part you fell in love with? In revealing that we discover that the thing which is annoying them the most is the very thing that attracted them. It’s just not working well at the moment.
The same is true for yourself. The things that you find frustrating are also the things that you love about you. They are just out of balance.
I love Anneliese’s approach. When we feel angry and frustrated with ourselves, soften a little and view ourself with compassion, find the positive side of what we view as a negative attribute and be thankful.
Anneliese says, I like to tell clients and fellow writers:
Your inner critic is doing you a favour. She might be over-zealous in doing it, but how is she helping you? You should be thankful for that.
I agree with Anneliese and say that our inner critic is trying to protect us. When they tell us: ‘You can’t do that. You will fail’, they are trying to stop us from getting hurt. We need to say, ‘Thank you. I can hear you, but it’s okay. I’ve got this.’ Be loving to that inner voice and understand its intention, but have faith that it’s okay. You can do this. I call them the goblins.
Anneliese laughs. ‘That’s cute.’ In family therapy, she tells me, there is a popular approach called Internal Systems Family Therapy. It’s basically that we have lots of parts of ourself – goblins of yourself, inside and you have to work out how to get them to all work together. Sometimes, one of them has been exiled by the others, or wounded before they can do their job. And so, another goblin is working harder to make up for it and in order to find balance you have to find the wounded, exiled part, heal them and invite them back into the birth of yourself.
I reflect. So, love all of them? And balance them. Because they are working together with the common goal that they all want you to succeed. This was perhaps an over-simplification, but Anneliese kindly agreed.
On to my next question, which again came from Anneliese’s excellent blog. I read that Greta, her seeing-eye dog, experienced behavioural problems, which Anneliese researched to understand her better. I asked, ‘You have a Master’s in Christian counselling and so this must have been fascinating for you. What did you discover and how might this relate to us humans?’
Anneliese replied, ‘That is kind of the core of my blog right now. Describing our journey as a working team to explain different mental health concepts.’ She went on to say that when Greta had some behavioural issues, she approached it like couples-counselling.
Because when a dog has issues, then the human does too.
It doesn’t necessarily mean the human caused the issues. Parents of dogs tend to blame themselves almost as much as parents of humans do. You and your dog live together in companionship and so you are bound to impact one another. So, if your dog is anxious, you are aware of that and will respond. Or, if your dog is fearful, energetic, or hyper, that has an impact on you. And so, when you work with your dog, you have to work with yourself too. Just like in couples’ counselling. If one partner has an affair, a traumatic injury or a job loss, this will have an impact on their partner as well as on them. So, it is important that couples acknowledge that and are prepared to work co-operatively as well as independently.
When I recognised that Greta had what I liked to call post high-school stress disorder, after interning at a high-school, brought on by the rambunctious activities of the teens – they did respect her, but she didn’t like the way they were treating each other and frankly, I don’t blame her – then I got myself a therapist and a dog trainer who I refer to as our doggie couple’s therapist.
I asked what behaviour Greta was exhibiting.
Barking at people when she was distressed. She wanted to restore order and so she barked. I felt, everyone is going to think she is an aggressive, badly behaved dog, and we are going to destroy the reputation of service dogs and access law. And I’m going to ruin the world for all blind people, ever. And that’s why I needed a therapist! See, another example of toxic positivity.
I remarked that by working with Greta and the dog-trainer, Anneliese had learnt something about herself.
What I didn’t recognise is all my life I heard definitions of anxiety that didn’t match my experience. People expressing concerns about what might happen in the future.
I didn’t worry. What I did was rehearse and resolve the same problem over and over again. And that is also a definition of anxiety.
It took Greta’s issue for me to realise that I spent hours a day resolving and planning for every possible conversation where someone would criticise us for the slightest misbehaviour on her part. I realised; Oh, I have anxiety. That definition I heard isn’t the only one out there. If I had realised there were things such as rumination and repetitive thoughts, I might have taken action years earlier for myself, not related to Greta.
I could identify with the anxiety Anneliese describes. For me, meditation helps to stop the repetitive thoughts.
Again, we come back to balance, Anneliese reassures me. It comes from a good thing: the ability to look out for potential problems ahead and plan for them, is a healthy natural skill that people ought to be able to develop. It’s a good thing. It’s just a problem when you can’t stop doing it. When it gets in the way.
Your brain is designed to move in and out of threat mode easily. When you can’t get out of threat mode, that’s when you have anxiety.
I understand, I say. ‘It’s learning how to still your mind and understand what’s happening.’
Anneliese says: Mindful meditation can allow us to watch our thoughts, disentangle them and then, in a way, consciously reach for the on/off switch to take us out of threat mode.
I add: And to be compassionate and kind. It’s always easier said than done, but we are all works in progress.
I ask another question from Annelies’s blog. As a writer, you experience the world differently to sighted people. In your blog post, Overcoming the sight barrier in world building, you explain touch don’t tell and how you envisage the world through your hands. Can you tell us more about your approach to world building?
World building tends to happen more in science fiction and fantasy genres, but it can happen in historical fiction. It’s where you construct a world or part of a world that doesn’t exist. For example, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia.
Being blind from birth, I’ve not been able to experience the world visually, so I don’t care what a person’s clothes are like, for example. I found I felt disengaged from many books because they did not engage all the senses. But then, I read books like the Redwall series by Brian Jacques and he spends a lot of time describing the texture, scent, and flavour of food, and the sound of singing, the accents different characters have, and the scent of trees, flowers, and damp earth. He is a multi-sensory author. And I thought:
Well, my world is pretty rich even though I can’t see, so how can I convey the wealth of experience that I have to people who are so used to limiting themselves to their eyes as their primary sense? How can I make them experience my story with their whole body?
So, when I write about an experience I have not encountered before, for example, firing a cannon; the first thing I will do is research the mechanics of how it works, then I will look up recordings of the sounds, or I will go to a museum that has a cannon and I will put my hands on it, with permission. I get away with a lot because I am blind and they recognise that just looking at something in a museum doesn’t cut it for me. I look for as many experiences that I can experience with my full body and translate that on to the page in the same way that another person might look up an image on the internet and describe it visually on the page.
I could have talked to Anneliese for hours, but sadly, we ran out of time. She shared some fascinating insights. But you can hear more from Anneliese by visiting her blog https://comelookonthedarkside.wordpress.com
After meeting Anneliese for this interview, I asked her to read the draft of a short story I had written about a sighted boy living in a world where everyone was blind and his sight was considered a disability. The observations in her feedback were invaluable. For example, a blind woman in my story touched the face of her love interest to discover his features. Anneliese pointed out that a person blind from birth would have no interest in what a face looked like. Her comments enabled me to write a much better story. You can access a free copy of A World of Difference by signing up to my newsletter. Or read more about the value Anneliese added to my story as a sensitivity reader, in my blog post: What would the world be like if everyone was blind?
So, until next time, take care of your beautiful self, and trust the journey.
You can find all episodes of The Mindful Writer podcast here: https://themindfulwriter.buzzsprout.com
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