Authentic living

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their graves with the song still in them.”

That’s a quote by American author, poet and philosopher Henry Thoreau. It dates back to the 1840s but I fear it’s just as relevant today, if not more so, and, of course, to men and women.

I was heading that way, pursuing a career trajectory that, I only realised afterwards, was taking me further and further away from my authentic self, from my song. There were days of ‘quiet desperation’ when I’d stare at the computer screen, unable to muster any enthusiasm for my work, despite being in a job many people would have killed for. My soul had clocked off, my spirit had gone to sleep.

It’s taken years to discover who I am at my core, to identify the kind of work that makes my heart sing and understand the rhythm of life that’s good for me.

I need variety, flexibility and freedom – freedom to work how and when I choose (even if that brings its own struggles). I need to be creating – building, making or writing something unique. I need a combination of solitary and group activities in my week, to satisfy both sides of my personality, my introvert and extrovert. I need to be out there, leading groups, running workshops, giving talks, but then I also need to retreat, to rest, recharge and to create in silence.

I need to be fulfilling the side of me that loves to teach, coach, train and mentor, that wants to encourage, support and nurture, that wants to help others to fulfill their potential and live their dreams. I need to be working with people, writing things that help people or coaching them to live their best lives. And at times, I need to be at the front of the room, on the stage, in the spotlight, being seen, in a very visible role.

I didn’t know this before, or perhaps I didn’t need these things before. Perhaps my younger self was satisfied with the adrenalin buzz of news journalism. And my previous job did come with its fare share of highlights.

I got to tell stories, which is one of the things I enjoy most. I worked in a team and got to interview people from all walks of life. I got to travel the world, experience new cultures, speak my languages, give free rein to my gregarious self. All that was good, but there was always an undercurrent of low self-esteem, of “I’m not good enough”, which held me back and caused me stress.

Then, as the years went on and I climbed higher up the ladder, moving into political reporting, I spent less time out in the field meeting new people and hearing their stories and more time sitting in an office, writing what seemed like the same news stories over and over in a set formula, which began to feel like a straight jacket. And as my job became higher profile and my stories more widely read, the volume on the “I’m not good enough” voice went right up.

The more dissatisfied and bored I felt, the more I felt I was putting on an act and the more scared I felt that I was about to be found out, the more I fell back on the coping strategies I’d been using for years to mask my shame and fear – primarily binge eating, starving and compulsively exercising to lose the weight.

As I see it now, from this vantage point, my inauthenticity – an ever-widening gap between who I was on the inside and the role I was playing on the outside – caused a huge amount of stress. I was contorting myself into an unnatural shape, squeezing myself into a box where I didn’t fit. Food was my stress relief, along with compulsive work as I battled to prove my worth.

Now I’m on a different path. Writing my book and making good progress, yes, but also building a business that’ll allow me to achieve my unique potential and play to my strengths while helping others to do the same. I’m using my experience, my natural abilities – including coaching, encouraging, communicating and leading groups – and a really effective tool called Packtypes.

Packtypes is a simple card system that helps people quickly identify their strengths and their areas of natural talent and ability. It uses dogs as metaphors for personality types and traits, although it doesn’t put people in boxes. Instead, it helps people take responsibility for their own development, shows them how to play to their strengths and how to work on their blind spots. It builds self-awareness and confidence and increases motivation. It helps children and adults find their path, discover their song.

You ain't nothing but a Hound dog - or are you?

You ain’t nothing but a Hound dog – or are you?

So are you, like me, a people person, a natural teacher and coach (a Coachdog), who also has a penchant for communicating, leading groups and being centre of attention (a Mastiff)? Are you the ideas person on a team, the inspired entrepreneurial type (a Hound)? Are you the researcher, who loves facts, figures, logic and making sure everything has been checked out (a Pointer)? Or are you super organised, with a love of writing lists and ticking things off (a Sheepdog)? Do you love rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in (the Terrier)? Do you have strong moral principles, proceeding with caution because you’re keen to do things for the right reasons (a Retriever)? Or are you determined, ambitious and results-driven, a bit of an Alan Sugar type, without pointing any fingers (a Guarddog)? Your profile will be a combination of these cards – some people will be more specialist and others will have a broader array of strengths.

Packtypes helps you identify your natural comfort zone and then move out from it, without creating too much stress for yourself. It helps you understand how to relate to and communicate with other types, helping to improve relationships. And it’s great for identifying gaps in teams – be that in schools, charities or the corporate arena – so you can make sure everyone’s in a role that matches their strengths and you can get your recruitment right.

All the research suggests we’re living in an age of huge dissatisfaction and disengagement at work. We’re medicating ourselves more than ever before, with pharmaceuticals, alcohol, food, sex, money, hard drugs or compulsive work, amongst other things. Addiction is widespread, in children and adults. We’re ashamed to admit what we’re doing, to be vulnerable, to share our true selves, as Brené Brown so eloquently describes in her fantastic Ted talk: The Power of Vulnerability.

I honestly believe one of the reasons we’re feeling disengaged, depressed or are self-soothing with unhealthy, often harmful substances or behaviours is that we’re squeezing ourselves into boxes where we just don’t fit, we’re contorting ourselves into shapes that were never meant for us.

Picture a large round ball of dough and a star-shaped cookie-cutter. To fit the dough into the star-shaped mould, we have to squidge it, squeeze it and lop bits off. It gets in, but it’s an uncomfortable squash and some of it gets left behind. Or think of a plasticine man and a square box. To fit him in, we have to compress him into a different shape so he no longer looks like himself.

Is this what we’re doing to ourselves? Are we working in something we hate that doesn’t play to our strengths? And is this what we’re doing to creative, free-wheeling kids when we force them to sit and conform to one-size-fits-all schooling, exams and results?

Do we feel squidged, squashed, contorted, compressed or incomplete? Do we feel bored, like our souls have gone to sleep? And what do we do to compensate, to feel better, to give ourselves some relief?

I imagine a world where everyone is playing to their strengths, doing work or pursuing studies that make their heart sing and doing so in a balanced way that allows space for all the other things that bring them joy and peace. In this world, there’s less depression, less obesity, less alcoholism, less illness and less stress. There are fewer hunched shoulders, fewer bad backs and fewer heart attacks.

Utopia? I hope not. And I’d like to think I can do my little bit to help. I can lead by example by making sure I live a balanced life and honour my talents, hopes and dreams and I can use my natural abilities and the tools I’ve discovered to help others find their path and the courage to pursue it.

When I’m doing this work, which feels so aligned with my authentic self, I can barely hear the “I’m not good enough” voice. It’s not a struggle. Everything just flows.

My goal is to help people break free from their lives of ‘quiet desperation’ and find fulfilment and joy; to help them discover their song and sing it out loud. If you know of anyone who I might be able to help – individuals, schools, companies, charities – do share this blog and my website: How to Play to Your Strengths.

Thank you.

Posted in Addiction, Creativity, Happiness, Mentoring, Recovery, Women, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Keeping the spirit of adventure alive

A Diego Rivera mural in Mexico City, reminding me of the beauty of travel

A Diego Rivera mural in Mexico City, reminding me of the beauty of travel

There was once a time, back in 1999, 16 years ago, when I flew from Mexico City to Caracas via Miami on an expired passport. I knew it had expired before I got on the plane. I’d noticed the date a few days before when I got my passport out ahead of the first big work trip for a new employer. What? You must be joking? First disbelief, then anger, followed by tears. This couldn’t be happening to me.

I tried my best to get it renewed, over a weekend, I think – ringing emergency numbers in Mexico City and London, pleading with them – don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know who I work for? – but to no avail. So I decided – instead of telling my employer what had happened and missing an exciting trip to Venezuela and Colombia – that I’d wing it.

There were some hairy moments. Handing my passport in at the check-in desk in Mexico. I got away with it. Phew. Getting stuck in transit in Miami – just me and hordes of Latin Americans who didn’t have visas for the United States. Being told I might have to leave Miami airport and get a hotel – and therefore go through immigration and … who knows … get arrested, get sent back? – because the plane was faulty and might not leave until the next day. Finally, after hours of anxious waiting in the transit lounge, being ushered onto a plane and being told they’d oversold the seats and I might not get to fly. Then, heart in mouth, being directed to a spare seat in first class in hushed tones by the stewardess, who advised me not to be too conspicuous, to try and fit in. Then eating all the free food and drinking glass after glass of free champagne, smiling and nodding every time the stewardess passed by with the bottle, so by the time I got to Caracas, I was well and truly drunk, anaesthetised against any fear I felt and able to stroll confidently up to the immigration desk, smile, converse in my best slurred Spanish and wander on through. They didn’t notice my expired passport there either. And they didn’t ask too many questions at the British Embassy in Caracas the next day. I’d got away with it and my employer would never have to know (until now).

There was also a time, some 20 years ago, when I was stood at the side of a massive highway on the west coast of Australia, on my own, my huge backpack at my side (about as clueless as Cheryl Strayed in Wild), wearing a cap to try and disguise the fact I was a solo female traveller, holding my thumb out, hitchhiking, as huge articulated lorries driven by large, possibly lonely Australian men rumbled by. It was late afternoon and I knew I didn’t have a whole lot of daylight left. Underneath, I must have been terrified, but on the outside, I was bold, fearless, daring, crazy and ruthlessly independent (apart from the fact I needed someone else to drive me to the next town).

The trucks didn’t stop. But someone was looking after me that day. My ride came in the form of a VW combi van driven by a bunch of northern English 20-something ladies (I was a 20-something from northern England too – they were from Manchester, I’m a Liverpudlian, but we didn’t let that get between us). They took me in, gave me food and wine, made me laugh and kept me safe. I slept in my tent by the side of their van and we travelled together for several days, all the way to Perth.

Then there was the time I was hitching out of Mexico’s Copper Canyon (as described in my Mexican memoir blog) in the middle of the night – because cars couldn’t make it out of there in the heat of the day. Once again, alone, vulnerable, by the side of the road, but feeling invincible – at least on the surface – and laughing at my boldness and crazy sense of adventure. I got a lift out in the dark with the Coca-Cola truck although we got a flat tyre half way up and I started to feel a little uneasy about my two male travelling companions towards the end of the journey and parted company as soon as I could.

And a few weeks earlier, stood on a street corner in Tijuana – Tijuana of all places – on my own, with a backpack and a city map, lost, looking for some non-existent backpackers’ hostel. Once again, I was looked after, taken home by two Mexican brothers who could have taken advantage of my naivety, but didn’t.

I have diaries and a memory bank full of stories like these. The solo trip I took to see the bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand, ending up in a bus on my own with a driver who appeared to be giving me a private tour, despite us not being able to communicate, and who, I realised when he lifted his shirt to wipe the sweat from his brow, had a gun down the back of his trousers. A gun? Now what? Should I try and get away? I remember the lunch I ate with him in a restaurant and the moment I felt he’d drugged my drink and I went to the bathroom to see if I could escape through the window. I couldn’t and returned to my table. He drove me to my coach and said goodbye. The gun wasn’t for me.

There was a more dangerous gun in Mexico, of course, pointed at my chest, when I was being robbed on my own in a taxi by two men or three if you count the taxi driver who might have been in on it. And a knife too, during another robbery in a different taxi a few weeks later – I didn’t learn my lesson. There was the ride in the sports car on an empty road in New Zealand – hitchhiking alone again – and the trip on the back of a motorbike in Bangkok. Adventures galore.

At the time, I wore these crazy escapades like a badge of honour, trying to outdo myself each time, seeking out something even more outrageous than before. Today, though, the memories are tinged with sadness. I don’t want to dismiss my adventurous spirit, my crazy courage or my trusting heart that took me all around the world and brought me into contact with so many kind strangers. And I’m grateful for the gift of being able to speak Spanish and Portuguese with ease. But now I see beneath the bravado to the loneliness and I see all the unhealthy behaviours I used to mask my fear and pretend I didn’t feel unsafe.

On most of those occasions, you see, I wasn’t present. I wasn’t aware of who I was, how I felt inside or the risks I was taking. I didn’t feel the loneliness. I was in denial. I used food – too much, too little or an obsession with my body – to take me away from reality and numb my feelings. I used alcohol too. I did feel fear – especially when I saw a gun – but I dismissed it quickly and just kept going, logging it in my memory bank of great tales to tell my friends once I’d found my way to the bar.

Why did I have to travel so far, take so many risks and insist on being so alone? Yes, I was a thrill seeker, an adrenalin junky and I wanted to run away, from home, from myself. But perhaps I was also recreating some of the patterns from my past, from my childhood years, because there were occasions, as a little girl, when I felt sad, lonely and scared at holiday times.

I remember a scene at Manchester Airport when I’d forgotten my teddy and was inconsolable. A typical child’s reaction, perhaps, to forgetting their favourite toy but I can’t help but think that my response was extreme. I was a sensitive child. I remember feeling lonely too when we got to Spain, playing with a Spanish girl I couldn’t understand, who dunked me in the swimming pool although I couldn’t swim, leaving me in tears but with nobody around for support. Everyone laughed at me – didn’t I know it was a game?

If it’s true what the psychotherapists say and we unconsciously repeat the patterns of our childhood as adults – because we seek out the familiar, because we replay the tape and hope for a different outcome – I wonder if that was what I was doing, at least in part, when I went off on my solitary adventures and took risks that left me vulnerable and insecure?

Today, things are very different. Yes, the adventurous spirit is still there but without the crutch of excess food (most of the time) or other substances to calm my nerves, the fear of the world that’s been with me all my life is much closer to the surface, so it’s more of a struggle to leave the safety of my home, break my routine and go on adventures. Will I cope? Will I manage without resorting to excess food? Can I trust myself to stay safe? Can I trust the world? The prospect of change can seem scary, be that a simple weekend away, a holiday or moving to the sea. I struggle with the decisions, wanting everything to be perfect,  just right, wanting to control every last detail, not leave anything to chance. At times, the fear can be paralysing.

My hire car in between the sand dunes in Tarifa, Spain

My hire car in between the sand dunes in Tarifa, Spain

I’ve also lost my desire for solo adventures, although I know it’ll come back as soon as I go on one, as soon as I’m off the plane and have found my feet in a new country. This is what happened in Spain last year. I felt a lot of fear before I went but my confidence returned as soon as I picked up the hire car at Malaga and headed off in the direction of Tarifa. Yes, I have a boyfriend now, a marvellous travelling companion, but I don’t want to lose my ability to travel and explore on my own.

These days, though, I’m finding the glorious British countryside is exotic and exciting enough for me most of the time, after so many years of travelling all over the world. I’m discovering my own country has so much to offer, although I know my heart will sing again when I walk off a plane in a foreign land, particularly if I speak the language, and particularly once I feel the heat. Then I will wonder why on earth it took me so long.

This travelling thing feels like a process. Like any good extremist, I went from one extreme to the other. The crazy, risky, bold, solo adventures gave way to a craving for stability, home and very little change. And the more I stay, the more I don’t travel and the more I get used to a routine, the more scary it feels to change and to move.

Sunset off the Pacific Coast of Mexico

Sunset off the Pacific Coast of Mexico

Fear builds quickly, very quickly I find. It doesn’t take long for fear of the unknown, of change, to quash my adventurous spirit and convince me to stay home. Faith is much harder to build, it’s a much slower process.

But the answer, for me, is to keep building my faith in myself by taking the action, going away – on my own or with others – and making the changes my heart desires.

My faith grows as I remind myself that I’m an adventurous soul who comes alive and feels inspired when out exploring the world. I don’t crave the adrenalin hit like I did before, which I think is a good thing, but I do want my heart to stay open to the wonders of travel and the possibilities of change.

 

 

Posted in Addiction, Eating disorders, Faith, Recovery, Travel, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

From fantasy to reality

I’ve been living in a fantasy world.

A world in which this blog or my half-written book gets discovered, I get offered a big-bucks publishing deal and someone else writes the book for me or holds my hand every step of the way. A world in which I don’t actually have to sit down and do the work. I don’t have to finish what I start. I don’t have to choose between the words I keep and the ones I throw away or decide whether to swap chapter one for chapter three.

A world in which I don’t grow old or get aches and pains, and when I do get injured or pick up muscle strains, they get better on their own, in a very short space of time. I don’t have to do the stretching or the strengthening or follow the advice of doctors or physios.

A world in which I can sit for hours at a computer without getting back ache and in which I don’t need to do regular Pilates exercises to improve my posture, ease my back pain and prevent my body from seizing up. A world in which I can type for hours too, without my wrists hurting or without me having to do the exercises my physio has given me.

In reality, I know I have to do the promotional work, so do come along!

A world in which money, work and clients come to me in abundance, without me having to search for them or knock on their doors; where people come to my workshop without me having to advertise or promote it (this Saturday 25th in London N4 at 2 pm – see the flyer to the right). Where companies, organisations and networks find out about the self-awareness, strengths and team-building workshops I’m doing without me telling them and schools hear about my self-esteem talks without me ringing up. A world in which they find me. They discover me. They ask me in. (The irony is I can work my socks off for someone else, but when it comes to working for myself, promoting myself, it’s a different kettle of fish).

A world in which banks allow me to draw down several hundred thousand pounds against the market value of my one-bedroom London flat, despite the fact my mortgage is more than seven times my net income, following a rather drastic drop in earnings since I began working for myself, and despite the fact I’ve only been repaying the interest, not the capital, on my home for the last seven years.

A world in which I draw down those funds, get a second mortgage too, despite my present circumstances, and buy a beautiful home by the beach.

A life by the sea

A life by the sea

A world in which I don’t have to pay off my mortgage or have a pension because my flat is worth plenty of money, so I can just spend the money I earn.

A world in which I can have all the things I want – a home by the sea, a beach hut, a campervan, lovely clothes and holidays – without earning the money first.

A world in which I can live at the coast and have access to my London flat, without needing to rent it out to subsidise my move; without needing to choose, to risk or let something go.

A world in which all aspects of work are enjoyable and I don’t have to do the dull admin that goes with being self-employed or the money-earning work that isn’t exactly my heart’s desire.

A world in which relationships are like permanent sunny holidays, without any rough patches, compromises or hard work; without the need to negotiate boundaries, speak difficult truths or make tough choices. Where I get absolutely everything I want in one beautiful, rugged package.

A world in which it’s common for women to have children naturally at the age of 43, 44, 45 or 46, without the need for syringes, hormones or a younger woman’s eggs. A world in which pregnancy is blissful, labour is pain-free, motherhood is a dream without any nightmares and any children I miraculously manage to have in my mid-40s are cherubs who never have tantrums or tell me they hate me. (As I write this, in the quiet room in the cafe in my local park, two mums I know stroll past the window pushing prams and watching their toddlers toddle along in the sunshine … and I feel a pang. I’m writing. I’m working. They’re mothering. What is it I want? Do I not know yet?)

A world in which things take much less time than I expect and there are far more than 24 hours in the day; where journeys that take 45 mins only take 30 mins and in which nothing unforeseen ever happens en route to make me late. A world in which contingency planning isn’t necessary, because everything goes to plan.

So I wrote at the beginning that I’ve been living in a fantasy world. Past tense. I’m emerging from it and I have been for years. It’s been a gradual and painful process of growing up and understanding how the real world works, intermingled with a few sharp growth spurts, some head-out-of-the-sand moments that have catapulted me into reality and brought me back to earth with a bump.

It’s been a process of understanding I can’t have everything I want, that reality doesn’t work like that. Of learning I sometimes have to make difficult, painful choices and compromises that involve letting go of the thing I didn’t choose. Of understanding miracles don’t always happen, that I will feel physical and emotional pain, that my body will only heal if I do my bit to help and that hard work and commitment are vital if I want to complete anything.

A process of coming to know that I have to take responsibility for my finances, advertise my workshops and write to prospective clients and that my book will only get written if I sit down every day to write it. Of grasping the fact that mortgages need to be paid off and unexpected stuff happens so it’s best to do some contingency planning.

A process of becoming aware that natural conception and childbirth are uncommon in your 40s, that motherhood is maddening and tiresome at times, that all toddlers have tantrums and meltdowns and most teenagers go through a period of disliking their parents intensely. A process of understanding that relationships aren’t long sunny holidays – they require commitment, compromise and conversations that will frighten me to death.

I’m sad I lived in fantasy for so long but I don’t blame myself and nor does it surprise me. I missed out on some vital life lessons along the way and I know it has something to do with developing addictive, compulsive behaviours from a very young age. I didn’t mature in the way I was supposed to, so I’m having to mature now.

Maybe I created a fantasy land as a way of escaping a reality I didn’t like and of running away from painful feelings I didn’t know how to cope with. Perhaps I was conditioned to think in this way, to think something or somebody would come along to fix me, save me, rescue me or discover me; to think someone or something would mend my financial affairs, write my book for me, take me away from “all this”, transport me to a different, happier land.

Yes, that’s the crux of it. I grew up believing that happiness was over there – over there where you are, in that big house by the sea with its nice cars and speed boats, in that family with the mum and dad and two kids, in that job you do or that publishing deal you’ve got. I grew up believing in a fantasy – an unattainable fantasy of a perfect man, job, home and family life. I saw them everywhere and sometimes I still do – those “perfect” lives, husbands, kids, careers, bodies and so forth.

But today I understand the problem with this fantasy thinking is I don’t appreciate what I have, I don’t appreciate the happiness I’ve got.

So for today, I acknowledge that happiness isn’t over there. It’s in here, inside me. And I commit to giving thanks for that and for all the good stuff that’s going on.

At the same time, I let go of the idea of some magical big fix and I commit to doing the work (I’ve just dowloaded Steven Pressfield’s book Do the Work – but I’ll read it quickly and make sure I actually do the work!). I commit to taking responsibility, to choosing, deciding and finishing what I start (it appears losing interest in projects and moving on to the next big idea is typical of creative people). I commit to saving money, paying the mortgage, getting places on time and living in reality.

I do this in the knowledge that while it’s important to be grounded in reality, I can aspire to some really great things and that miracles of sorts do happen. Perhaps not in the way I expect them to, but they do happen. I, for one, have changed in miraculous ways.

I also commit to working wholeheartedly when I’m at work, resting wholeheartedly when it’s time to rest, and playing wholeheartedly when it’s time for fun.

And I commit to promoting my upcoming free workshop. So at the risk of repeating myself, do take a look at the flyer and do come along – Saturday April 25th, 2-4:30, St Mark’s Church, N4 3LD. It would be lovely to see you there.

Posted in Addiction, Childless, Creativity, Recovery, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Boys can cry too

It’s been ages. So long, in fact, that I’ve had a birthday since I last posted and haven’t even blogged about it. I’m now 44 – and wondering how long I can keep blogging under the name, ‘From Forty With Love’. Clearly I didn’t think this one through! But then I reckon the title could also mean ‘from forty upwards’, so perhaps I can keep going until I’m 50.

Of course, now I’m here, I want to tell you all about my 44th, on March 13th. How I spent it with my boyfriend, eating the gluten-free, Nigella Lawson recipe cake he baked me and skinny dipping in the ice cold sea off the Dorset coast. Yes really, I went in, in nothing but my bobble hat. I even put my shoulders under. Crazy lady. I also want to share that I received some wonderful gifts – including the beautiful and entirely appropriate book Wild Swim (my friends know me well) – and sang silly karaoke songs until far too late at night in a dodgy pub by Waterloo. But all that’ll have to wait, if I come back to it at all. Instead, here’s one I prepared earlier, to quote Blue Peter.

I started writing this blog weeks ago. It was pretty much done but I didn’t post for some reason, then I got sidetracked, then I forgot about it, then I wondered if it was worth posting at all. But there’s a reason I’m moved to write about the topics I do, so I’m just going to roll with it. I’ve returned to the original, tidied it up and expanded on it. I hope to be back soon with some musings on turning 44 … or whatever else happens to be on my heart the next time I write.

***

It was lunchtime and I was sitting in the pretty square near my studio in the elegantly named De Beauvoir town, a suburb of East London for my faraway readers. I was being optimistic – it was mid-February but the sun was out so I decided it was warm enough to eat outside. This is the same optimism that has me carrying a bikini around in my bag for most of the summer, and sometimes the spring and autumn too, just in case there’s a chance to nip to the Ladies Pond for a dip. On the day in question, it wasn’t as warm as it looked through my studio windows, but lunching outside was still doable for hardy, northern, swim-in-the-sea-in-March folk like me.

The park was crawling with children, running in circles, on the climbing frame, playing football – it was half-term – so it wasn’t quite the peaceful lunch break I’d imagined, but there was plenty to keep me entertained.

I was particularly interested in a small group of children who were playing nearby, so close in fact that I expected their football to knock the Tupperware out of my hand. When I arrived, this group – about five of them – had just launched into a running race but the smallest child, a boy of around five or six, had been left behind. In seconds, he was in floods of tears, standing there with his head down, trying to get some words out through the gulps and sobs. From what I could gather, he was crying because the others had run off and he couldn’t keep up. Maybe he felt humiliated, maybe he felt angry – he just wanted to run fast like the bigger kids.

A woman rushed up to console him – in her teens by the looks of it, an older sister or cousin perhaps. He couldn’t expect to run like the older children, they had much longer legs, she said, steering him to a bench so he could sit and shed his remaining tears. Pretty soon, the kids who’d run ahead of him completed their circular route and arrived back at the bench.

“Why are you crying?” said an older girl in a taunting voice, leaning into his tear-stained face with her hands on her hips. “Boys don’t cry,” said the girl, who was around nine or ten, I’d say, with long slim legs – good for running.

I looked up when I heard those words and frowned. Really? Really, I thought. Boys are still being told this? Small boys are still being told it’s not OK to cry, it’s not manly to be upset? After all we’ve learned, after all we’ve come to understand about the dangers of keeping our feelings bottled up inside, about depression, about anger that comes out sideways, in the form of a thump or kick, or turns inwards, in the form of addiction and self-harm. And after all we know about male suicide rates. Shouldn’t we be sending out different signals to boys by now?

Of course, the girl was only young herself and must have picked up the ‘boys don’t cry’ message from somewhere, from the grown-ups in her life, perhaps. And while it’s not ideal for young boys, or girls, to cry over losing a running race, feelings are feelings and they’re going to come out one way or another. That boy clearly felt hurt. And I reckon he needed help expressing that hurt. Instead, he was shamed for it.

Those words, ‘boys don’t cry’, have been stuck in my head ever since.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a boy or a man. Perhaps you guys don’t need to cry as often as I do. Maybe you don’t need a support network of half a dozen close friends you can call up at any time of the day or night in tears. But maybe some of you do. Or you do at certain times in your lives. There are some feelings that are just too big to be kept inside – the death of a parent, perhaps, the end of a relationship or losing your job, your marriage or your kids. Or those times when all the unspoken feelings and frustrations that have been bottled up for years start to bubble to the surface, when the lid really needs to come off the pressure cooker to avoid an explosion.

As someone who found many unhealthy, self-harming ways to cope with painful feelings and unsaid things for years, I worry that many men out there are hurting themselves by keeping their emotions inside. I know we’re different – men are from Mars and women from Venus and all that. I know we process things differently. But we can’t be that different. Isn’t it more that we’ve been conditioned to cope in different ways?

I confess there was a time some years ago when I found it hard to see the men close to me cry, particularly the man I was in a relationship with. I needed him to be strong, perhaps because I felt weak on the inside, even if I pretended otherwise.

His tears unsettled and unnerved me. They provoked strong feelings in me. I’m sad to say I felt almost repelled. This was my stuff – nothing to do with the man in question. It was a combination of a few things: the fact I hated the weak, vulnerable side of me so I couldn’t bear to see it reflected in someone close to me, someone I was attracted to; and that sense I had at the time that my man had to be strong for me, for the both of us.

These days, I feel differently about men’s tears. I’ve done a lot of personal development so I now accept my weaker, vulnerable side and am more able to accept that side of someone I love. And I don’t need a man to be strong for the both of us anymore. I’m stronger and I’ve developed my support network so there’s always someone I can call – and generally there’s someone I can call before my boyfriend. This is good because my upset isn’t always entirely rational, or it’s associated with deep pain from my past and has little to do with my present. I can work through this much easier with my girlfriends, many of whom are on the same journey, or with my therapist. The man in my life doesn’t need to hear all the emotional ups and downs. I can share them around!

But the bottom line is I do need to share – and maybe there are men who need to share their feelings too and don’t feel they’re able to or don’t know where to turn.

In fact, I know there are men who need and want to share their feelings because I’ve heard them speak. I heard a men’s panel at the Women of the World festival a few weeks back and a similar panel at WOW last year. And I heard a panel on Crash and Burn – what happens when your life hits a wall – at the Being A Man festival in 2014 (see the Telegraph’s write up here). Being a Man is back this year, 27-29 November, 2015, by the way.

Last year’s men’s panel at WOW was particularly moving. Many of the panellists shared how they felt they had to keep it together, primarily for the women in their lives. They felt an expectation to be strong, not to fall apart, that weakness wasn’t allowed. Fortunately, these men could talk openly about that expectation and they were also part of a men’s group – they met regularly to share their feelings and offer mutual support.

I’ve heard men share in other forums too that they’ve felt scared to be vulnerable with their wives or girlfriends. But the same men have also shared that these women have truly fallen for them in that very moment when they’ve been most vulnerable, when they’ve expressed their true feelings, when they’ve cried. I can relate to this. These days, I’m moved by a man’s tears.

But I know I need to continue to work on myself so I can be comfortable with my own weaknesses and therefore be accepting of his vulnerabilities too. And I can continue to develop my support networks so I have plenty of people to talk to when I’m feeling blue. If I can do this, I can avoid burdening the man in my life with the pressure of having to be strong all the time and I can avoid burdening him with all my troubles.

I can also send a message to all the men I know that I’m not only ready and willing to hear their vulnerabilities, but I’d be delighted and honoured if they’d share their true selves with me.

This level of openness, I hope, is possible in all our intimate relationships but what about at work? I think we particularly need authenticity in the workplace – it’s where many of us keep our true feelings inside and put on a front. I recently filled in a form for some work with a university and decided to omit any mention of my eating disorder or experience of ‘mental health issues’. I didn’t want the hassle of explaining myself. And I was wary I’d run into some form of prejudice. Then, a few days later, I changed my mind. I sent off a new form that told the truth. How could I write about authenticity and vulnerability or try to encourage others to share their stories and then hide it from my potential employers? I feel much more comfortable being true to myself. But I know this is tricky territory. (And I wonder, after all that’s been written about the GermanWings crash, how many people will want to write ‘depression’ on a disclosure form at work).

I feel strongly that men and women need to talk about their feelings and be authentic at home and at work. And given women tend to be better at this than men, we need to give the guys plenty of encouragement. After all, it could save lives.

A few days after hearing that little girl say ‘boys don’t cry’ in the park, I heard a moving programme on Radio 4 about men and suicide. Unfortunately, I can’t find it online to link to so I’ll have to summarise from memory. The host was speaking to a man who a while back had been stood on top of a building, preparing to jump off. He’d lost his marriage, his job and was sleeping on his son’s sofa. He’d lost his self-respect, he felt ashamed and he couldn’t see a way back. He had called the Samaritans a few weeks before but hadn’t said anything when they answered the phone. But as he stood at the edge of the building, he scrolled through his recent calls, to remind himself of the names of friends and family he’d be leaving behind. The Samaritans number caught his eye. He called it, got through to his local branch and they convinced him to come down and head to their offices for a cup of tea. He talked through his troubles. Maybe he cried. And he survived.

So boys, teenagers, men – please talk to us and please do cry. We can take your tears. We can more than take your tears. We love your tears. Don’t keep it all bottled up inside. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t work.

Posted in Addiction, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The wonder of you

There was a time, some seven or eight years ago, when I’d sit in an office every day, staring at a computer screen, feeling like a light had gone out inside – inside of me.

Back then, I had a job many people would kill for, the kind of job that made people go, “Wow!”. In many ways, I wasn’t too far off the pinnacle of my profession, or at least I was mingling with people who were at the pinnacle of theirs. In many ways too, I’d achieved everything I’d been striving for – I’d ended up where I’d wanted to be.

But my soul had gone to sleep. It felt like it had died.

It wasn’t always like that. In the early years, I’d loved the adrenalin and excitement of it all. The instant deadlines, the foreign travel – sometimes with an edge of danger – the sense I was at the heart of something big and important. I’d loved the social side of it too, the colleagues, the camaraderie, the being part of a team. I’d felt like I belonged, like I’d made it. Oh yes, and I got pretty well paid. I bought my dresses in Hobbs in those days.

But I guess I changed. Or something changed me. I went through some tough times (I came to terms with an eating disorder and the other ways I used to self-harm and began to recover; my dad died; I got depressed) and those experiences were a big part of the shift that took place inside. But maybe I also began to grow up, to mature. My priorities were no longer what they’d been in my 20s and early 30s. I started to wonder what all the striving had been for. So I left. I left so I could find another way.

I’m still finding it – it’s taken a while – but I feel like I’m getting there.

The other day, last week, I was stood in a school auditorium delivering a workshop on eating disorders, self-esteem, perfectionism, stress and how to manage difficult emotions to a group of sixth-form pupils. And unlike those times in my “wow” job when I’d felt like my soul had gone to sleep, on this occasion I felt alive. I felt exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt in my element – it all came so naturally, no nerves. I felt like I was living my purpose, doing God’s work, combining all my skills, talents and life experience – the good and the bad – into a wonderful package that might just make a difference to somebody else’s life. It was a real privilege.

And I noticed when those students really started listening, when they stopped fidgeting and whispering. It was when I began talking about myself. About my childhood. About the sadness, the sense of grief and loss after my dad moved out, the fear, the feelings of not being good enough, of needing to hide behind some sort of mask, to excel at everything, be perfect, be something I wasn’t. And all the studying and stressing and starving and eating and then the drinking.

Aged 22, after bingeing for years

Aged 22, after bingeing for years

And then, when I showed them the picture of me at 22, overweight, hiding my body and the shame I wasn’t in touch with behind a baggy shirt and a big smile, a hush fell over the room (or at least that’s how it felt to me – maybe I’m always shocked to see that photo myself).

We went on to discuss healthy ways to cope with school and exam stress, peer pressure, social media pressure, perfectionism, grief and loss, anxieties about school and home. We explored the alternatives to self-harm. And we talked a bit about balance, about balancing our desire to achieve and get good grades with self-love, self-care and happiness.

I felt useful, purposeful, grateful that my experience could maybe help others.

But I wasn’t being paid. And, this month, as I try to see if I can make a living from work I’m passionate about rather than work that drains me and suffocates my soul, there isn’t much money coming in at all.

So how can I achieve my unique potential without sacrificing my wellbeing and earn well enough to be able to buy a Hobbs dress again and go on some beautiful holidays?

That is my challenge – and I might need your help.

I know this will change and evolve as my ideas grow and develop but for today, this is what I want to do and believe I’m meant to do:

I’d like to deliver workshops to schools, to organisations and to individuals that help people identify and fulfil their unique potential without sacrificing their wellbeing or, put another way, that help them identify and fulfil their unique potential while staying sane. And I’d like to be paid.

I would do this by combining the training I have done to become a licensed instructor in Packtypes – a self-awareness card system that helps people identify and play to their strengths – with all the tools I’ve learned over the past 12 years of addiction recovery as I have come to understand my own natural gifts and potential and found ways to support myself as I try to fulfil that potential, without losing my mind or harming my body.

To design and deliver these workshops, I’m going to need all my strengths – my communication skills, my ability to connect on a deep level with people from many walks of life and my encouraging, supporting and inspiring side – and I’m also going to need to work on my lesser strengths, which include organisation, self-discipline, self-belief and the ability to start what I finish.

And how can you help?

A word of encouragement would be amazing.

If you could suggest any schools, businesses, charities, organisations, women’s groups or individuals that might be interested in my workshops – either purely on self-awareness, strengths and talent management or on achieving while staying sane, that would be awesome.

And if you could share any of the following links with anyone who you think might be interested in meeting me to talk about what I can offer, that would be fantastic:

This blog.

How to play to your strengths

Eating disorders workshops

I hope, pretty soon, with the help of some courage and encouragement, to host my first workshop for adults, so I’ll post it on this blog and do come along if it’s for you. I figure if I can lead a prosperous life by doing something I love, I can inspire others to take whatever leap of faith they need to take, apply their strengths to something they really enjoy, earn a good living and bring their soul back to life.

My “soul dead” stage, gracefully, was relatively short lived, at least the acute phase, but I don’t want to go back there. And it saddens me to think other people are sat there too, staring at a screen or engaged in a task but without any light on inside. I’d love to be able to help others to turn things around.

I know this is what I’m meant to be doing – at least for today – and I know the more I talk and write about it, the more it will come true. So thank you – as always – for listening.

Before I go, I’ll explain why I called this blog “The Wonder of You”. I came up with that name the other day after listening to Elvis sing that song on the radio and I thought it would make a great name for a workshop (so watch this space). Yes, he’s singing to someone else, but I love the phrase, I love the idea that we’re all unique and wonderful.

If you have time, listen to this song and watch this clip. It brings tears to my eyes. I love Elvis. Listen to that voice. And look how beautiful he was. Here’s a man with an amazing talent, living his potential, touching people’s lives. But this clip was filmed seven years before he died, at 42 (a year younger than me now), after his body fell apart from prescription drug and food abuse, after he became bloated and depressed. And we’ve lost so many other extraordinary talents too, people who were showcasing their gifts but who couldn’t cope with whatever feelings were going on inside.

Many of these stories involve celebrities and their often spectacular demise, but what about those of us whose souls are degrading slowly and quietly, who are dying on the inside? Those of us who know we’re not following our dreams or putting our natural gifts to their best use, perhaps scared that if we were to try, really try, we wouldn’t be able to handle the fear and feelings that might come up.

So how can we achieve our unique potential while maintaining our wellbeing and staying sane?

If you have any thoughts, please share them. I’m excited about exploring the answer with you.

 

 

Posted in Addiction, Body Image, Creativity, Eating disorders, Perfectionism, Women, Work | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Tears on the Tube

Happy New Year!

OK, so it’s Jan 26th and I’m a little behind. Where has the month gone? There was a mixture of glumness in the early days with some very predictable back-to-London, back-to-work blues, followed by some lovely trips to the seaside, plenty of cold, sunny, wintery days and a healthy dose of laughter and joy. I’ve also spent a decent amount of time on my sofa, bingeing on the entire first series of Broadchurch with the heating on and recovering from a sniffle, and while I’m not overly comfortable with sitting still for long periods of time, I’m definitely getting better at it.

Today, it’s a little grey again. I’ve worn myself out with ‘sales and marketing’ (not my favourite activities), drumming up interest in my new line of work – how to play to your strengths (please share the link!) – so I decided to post this slightly grey blog. I wrote the bare bones of this on the Tube 10 days ago and wasn’t sure whether I’d post it, but here it is.

For once, the tears aren’t mine ….

Tears on the Tube

“I have been there too, crying on the Tube. Wiping away the tears with my fist, trying my best to hide the redness in my face behind my hair, thumbing through a paper diary or the apps on my phone to try to distract myself – and you – from my watery eyes.

What is it, what’s wrong, I wonder, as I look over at you from where I’m stood in the crammed aisle. Bereavement, loss, illness, heartache, the January blues? What’s contained in that dark cloud that sits above your head? Or maybe I shouldn’t presume – perhaps they aren’t tears of sadness, maybe you’ve got something in your eye. But it looks like pain to me.

I want to come and sit next to you, reach out and say I’ve been there too, ask if I can help. I want to say don’t worry. I want to remind you that most of these people around us – those in the sharp suits, those with their mascara intact, those with their heads buried in newspapers – have felt the same way too, at some point, even if it doesn’t look like it right now, or even if they’ve never cried on the Tube. They’ve cried on their beds, in the loo, or maybe they’ve never managed to let the tears fall, but they’ve cried inside.

As I look at you and wonder what’s up, I’m reminded of the number of times I’ve cried at inopportune times or in inconvenient places. Yes, I’ve cried on the Tube, trying to keep my eyes fixed on the ground, trying not to be seen.

But I also remember the days I used to scooter into my office in parliament, riding my Vespa down Roseberry Avenue, with tears streaming from my eyes, knowing this wasn’t particularly safe, knowing I should pull up for a while, knowing I probably shouldn’t be going into work at all. When was that? Maybe around the time my Dad died. Or maybe a year later, when it hit me really hard, like a ten-tonne trunk.

Somebody stopped for me once, not so long ago, when I was crying in public. I was on Hampstead Heath, not on the Tube. Maybe it’s easier there, in the great outdoors. Not so many people to look or stare. Or maybe she was braver than me. I was sat sobbing on a log, in the autumn of last year. Lost. Hopeless. Desperate. And she stopped and offered support. We walked. Talked. Laughed a little. She made by day. And not long after that, I took some steps, made some decisions and turned everything around.

But I haven’t come over to you. I’ve taken a seat myself and by the time I glance over again, you’ve got off the Tube and there’s someone else in your place, someone with dry eyes. And maybe you’re pleased about that, maybe a kind word from a stranger would have been unwelcome, maybe you’d have felt embarassed or compelled to cry even more. But I’m still wondering about you – and I’m hoping you’ve found someone to help dry your tears.”

So why write this? I don’t know really. I guess because in that brief moment, I was struck by the universality of pain, suffering, loneliness and depression. And I was struck by the many ways we seek to hide it – successfully or otherwise – or try to push it down.

I’m also writing this because I’d like to help, if not by reaching out to you on the train that day, then perhaps simply by reminding all of us that, whatever our appearances, however much it looks like we’ve got it all sorted, most of us have been in tears on the Tube – or in some other public or private place – or will be in the future.

And most of us understand.

Yes, for once the tears aren’t mine, but if it’s me who’s crying next time, feel free to smile or say Hi. I hope I’ll do the same. And if you don’t want to talk, that’s fine.

 

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Progress, not perfection

I have a habit at this time of year – a time when many of us take stock of what’s gone before – to start fretting about all the things I haven’t achieved or accomplished in the previous 12 months. I look at all the visions I wrote and the dreams I drew for 2014 on large pieces of paper in coloured pens, and I wonder why I’m not exactly where I wanted to be as 2015 approaches.

I get an urge to start doing something about these unfulfilled dreams immediately, in the few days that remain. I start rushing and racing, pushing and striving and beating myself up inside for not meeting the goals I set for myself.

And then … I stop. I breathe. I smile. And I begin to give thanks for all the things that have happened to me or I’ve made happen this year. I start to notice my growth, the subtle changes and the more obvious ones. I begin to have compassion for myself and my process.

And then I take a closer look at that piece of A4 paper with coloured words, drawings and squiggles and, instead of dismissing it as a jumble of dashed hopes and unmet dreams, I realise that parts of it have come true, even if they’ve come true in a different way to how I envisaged them or not quite to the degree I’d hoped.

To give you an idea, some of the words and pictures on my vision page are: adventure, travel, Spain, Dorset, the English countryside, sun, cycling, swimming in the sea, writing, coaching, teaching, inspiring, a campervan, love.

Maybe I hadn’t expected ‘adventure, travel and Spain’ to come true in the form of a solo summer camping trip to Tarifa, but that trip was just what I needed at the time. I experienced peace while I travelled, and peace and travel haven’t always gone together for me. Nor had I imagined my campervan experience would involve North Wales and Christmas (I’m hiring one with my boyfriend in Conwy on Boxing Day), but as crazy as that seems to me at times, it’s also perfect (in it’s own, crazy imperfect way). And I haven’t done as much writing, coaching, teaching or inspiring as I’d have liked, but there’s been some of that. I have taught, I have encouraged and supported others, I have given talks on eating disorders and perfectionism to teenage girls – I have extended myself for the purpose of other people’s emotional and spiritual growth. And I’ve learned to love (more on that later and on the ‘boyfriend’ term, which is one you haven’t seen much around these parts).

Then there are other words on my vision page – such as ‘publish my book, be part of a community or a team, family?, children? (yes, the questionmarks are there), a pain-free, fit and supple body, an abundance of time and money’ – things that continue to be a work in progress. And that’s OK. After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

It’s progress, not perfection.

There are also some things I didn’t write down on my vision page and that I didn’t expect to happen to me. A wrist injury in early summer that sent me plummeting into a murky pool of depression, a brief flirtation with anti-depressants and the rather creative way (if I do say so myself) in which I clambered out of my stuckness, restored my sanity and found happiness again (the extreme self-care, the spontaneous trips to the beach, the writers’ retreat, the body boarding in Bude and my decision to commit to a relationship – it’s all documented in this blog, which, to my credit, I have maintained).

So in this, probably my last post of 2014, I’d like to salute my progress. And I’d like to salute yours – because I’m sure you’ve progressed too in many subtle or not-so-subtle ways, even if it feels like you haven’t, even if right now you’re sat staring at a vision board of unmet hopes and dreams, or even if you still haven’t got a clue what your vision is.

Why not champion our achievements? Why not search them out intentionally instead of honing in on our disappointments? Why not give thanks for the good stuff instead of focusing on where we’ve fallen short?

So, on my ‘good stuff’ list, I have the following:

I have continued, albeit intermittently, to write my book, despite losing momentum at times. And I invested in October in a writers’ retreat as a gift to myself and as a vote of confidence in my abilities to get to the end of a project that’s so close to my heart and so important to me, but so challenging too.

I have pulled myself back from the brink of despair (as described above) by choosing to put my health and wellbeing first and by recognising that I am often the author of my own stress or melancholy and that I have choices. I can make it better for myself. Often all it takes is a dip in the sea.

I have made a decision to commit to a relationship – put two feet in and use the ‘boyfriend’ word – and to learn to love and accept rather than criticise, judge, push away or try to change, shape or mold him into somebody else, no matter how strong the urge (there’s been progress here, not perfection!). I have learned to process my emotions in healthier ways, where possible outside of the relationship, so I don’t chuck all my baggage at one person (it can be a heavy load, although it’s getting lighter).

I have learned the art of pausing and reflecting, rather than reacting. I have learned to write about my anger or explore my resentments on paper, to share my doubts, fears and feelings with my fellows, get support and let some time pass before I decide what to say or what steps to take. This, along with the previous point about the relationship (they’re closely linked), is something of a miracle. I guess I’m growing up.

I have trained in a new tool that plays to some of my strengths that are underused in my writing career and that moves me closer to my dream of coaching, encouraging, inspiring and supporting others on their journey to greater confidence, improved self-esteem and a happier life. If you’d like to find out more, take a look at my new, incredibly colourful website – How to Play to Your Strengths – which I designed myself (not bad for a self-confessed technophobe – turns out you just have to read the instructions!).

I have made choices. I have taken risks. Progress, not perfection.

Not so many years ago, I was bingeing, starving, running, judging, criticising, burning out. I am still ambitious and determined. I still want to fulfill my dreams. But I’ve learned that achievement, without peace, doesn’t work for me.

Despite all the growth and change, my perfectionism can still throw a spanner in the works. And I still have an inner saboteur who doesn’t want me to succeed and a child inside me who’s scared of being seen, despite wanting desperately to be noticed. I’d like to tame my inner saboteur and coax that scared little child, who’s afraid of judgement, of criticism, of not being good enough, out of her shell.

dorset

More of this, please (a beautiful day in Dorset)

So in 2015, I’d like more of the same – more growth, more love and loving, more fun, more sun, more swimming, more adventures, more writing, teaching, coaching, inspiring and being inspired, more joy and laughter, more time for the important stuff in life, more acceptance of my journey and of yours and more peace.

But whatever 2015 looks like, it will be good enough.

I would, though, like to commit to a few things, call them resolutions, if you like: to say No to others more often in order to say Yes to myself; to listen to my instinct and have the courage to follow it; to trust God and myself; to risk; to lighten up; and to let go.

I’ll end on a little made-up poem, which doesn’t quite rhyme (but as it is, it’s just fine):

If your end of year review, leaves you feeling rather blue,

Look at it from a different perspective, and give thanks for progress, not perfection.

Merry Christmas and a happy, prosperous and peaceful 2015.

Posted in Fun, Happiness, Leisure, Love, Perfectionism, Recovery, Relationships, Self-Acceptance, Travel, Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments