The Power of Choice

It turns out doing a part time master’s degree alongside a challenging full time job is hard. Who knew? Not me, apparently. After scraping a pass in the first term of my first year I began term two last month with considerable trepidation, despite having adjusted (read: lowered) my expectations of what I could realistically achieve.

Don’t get me wrong, I am loving using my brain in an academic sense after a 15 year hiatus, and the content of my course – an MSc in Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology – is really interesting. I’ve discovered a love of coaching that I hope to turn into a career one day, and the positive psychology interventions I’m learning about this term are already having a positive effect on me.

Take today, for example. This week I took two days off work to catch up on my coursework, and after putting in considerable time to get on top of my assignment I found out this afternoon I had been heading down the wrong path and needed to start over. My first reaction was to rage, against the system and against myself for missing the important detail that would have meant be taking the right path. But then I stopped, took a breath, and realised something.

When we are faced with moments of stress, anxiety and adversity, one thing it helps to remember is we have a CHOICE. Not, perhaps, in terms of the outcome of the situation, but in terms of how we react to it. As soon as you distance yourself enough to realise that, it’s amazing how quickly the initial spike of emotion subsides, and you are able to see the bigger picture, and rationalise the negativity away.

I’m not sure where this calm new me has come from, but I don’t doubt there’s a strong positive correlation with starting this course. And so, despite the many challenges and frustrations that it brings, I’m taking a mindful moment right now to use the positive psychology intervention of gratitude – for the course and for my freedom to choose how I react to situations. Because somewhere in that freedom lies the secret to a good and happy life.

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No More Apologies: Why I’m proud to be me – and why you should be proud to be you, too

I care too much what people think of me. I always have. You would think by now I would have grown a thicker skin, especially given how prolific I am on social media, which opens every one of us to ridicule and scrutiny. But I like to share and actively participate in this crazy thing called life. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. I can’t be what I’m not. No matter how much others might prefer me to be.

I thought long and hard before writing this post. I’ve been close to writing it a number of times before, but always chickened out at the last minute. Why? Because it’s difficult to admit we are vulnerable, and that the opinions of others bother us. And yet, it’s human nature that they do. Only the thickest skinned people are able to ride the waves of others’ judgement and come out unscathed; the rest of us find ourselves shipwrecked, time after time.

It’s amazing how cutting a comment can be, how deeply it can slice into your psyche, revealing all your insecurities, making you question everything about yourself. But if you can get past the sting and consider the motive, it says a lot more about the person who made the comment than it does about you. If you’re comfortable in your own skin and believe not only that you are a good person with pure intentions, but also that you have something positive to offer the world, then why shouldn’t you be exactly who you are, all of the time?

Maybe your Instagram posts aren’t to another person’s taste. Well, guess what? They can unfollow you! Maybe they feel you hog their Facebook timeline with pointless updates. Here’s an easy solution: They can turn down the frequency of your posts. Hell, they can even unfriend you if it bothers them that damn much. Nobody has to engage with another person if they don’t want to.

My point is, you shouldn’t have to tone down who you are because someone else doesn’t like it. Ever. It’s taken me almost thirty six years to realise this, but thank God I finally have. That’s why I choose not to listen to the voices of negativity. I choose to trust myself and my path and my calling. I choose to breathe. I choose to be exactly who I am meant to be. And you have every right to choose the same.

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A life well lived

When I look back on my life (hopefully as an old woman), what will I want to share with my loved ones before I go? This is the question I am asking myself, as I venture into the unknown with my life writing project.

Will I want them to know my favourite colour? What and where I liked to eat and drink? How about the things I liked to read, the places I travelled to, the things I did as hobbies? Or would I rather they knew about my friendships, how deeply I loved, and the way it made me feel to watch the sun set and and birds swooping over the sea?

My heart tells me the latter. What good is it to know the surface attributes of a person? They are nothing but veneer and gloss. You have to scratch a little of it off to find the soul that’s underneath, and to get to the one thing – I would argue the only thing – that really matters: love.

Maya Angelou summed it up beautifully when she said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, [they] will forget what you did, but [they] will never forget how you made them feel.”

So, with that in mind, what would you tell your loved ones that would impart just a fraction of the way you made others feel during your lifetime, and the way they made you feel in return? What questions could you answer that would tell them who you truly are, that would leave an imprint of your essence long after you are gone? I’d love to know.

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Write My Life

Alongside my new venture as a life coach, I have decided to realise another ambition – setting up a service to capture people’s life stories. At school I remember being fascinated by the stories I read about the soldiers in the world wars, and their families. As the years passed, with each world war memorial service it struck me as sad that eventually all of the soldiers who fought in the wars would be gone, and their stories with them.

Closer to home, I have often found myself wishing I knew more about my own family’s history, so that I can tell my children and grandchildren (God willing) about it. We so often spend time with our parents, aunts and uncles without ever really uncovering who they were before we came along. Of course it’s natural that the younger generations grow up and usurp the family’s attention, but wouldn’t it be nice to capture the older relatives’ experiences, first hand, for future generations to discover? My goal in setting up this service is to do just that – to immortalise the stories of loved ones.

So if you have a loved one whose story you would like committed to paper, or if you would like your own story told, do get in touch. In the early stages of setting up the service I will be offering free stories in exchange for (hopefully positive!) testimonials on my website. So let’s begin…

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La Bella Venezia

Yesterday we returned from a week in Venice. Yes, that’s right, a full week in the place most people visit for two or three days at most, pausing only long enough to tick off the main sites (Rialto, St. Mark’s Square) and do the main tourist attractions (gondola ride, selfie in front of the Bridge of Sighs). But if you take the time to spend longer than the average tourist in this amazing place, you will really reap the benefits.

Besides being beautiful, with its labyrinth of canals, colourful buildings, lively squares and narrow passageways, Venice is steeped in history. One only has to stick their head into the stunning Frari Church or Scuolo Grande di San Rocco to get a flavour of what the city has to offer. And it doesn’t stop there. The different areas all have their own unique charm, from San Polo (where we rented a lovely Airbnb property and found a gorgeous sandwich shop/bar which we frequented for a beer and glass of Prosecco most evenings) to Castello (where we returned to a wonderful restaurant near to the famous Arsenale – former ship yard and armoury – where we dined on our honeymoon last year) to the Jewish Ghetto and Giudecca, which both have a completely different, but no less charming, vibe compared to the other parts of the city.

This year, the Venice Biennale festival includes modern art, with a huge display of artworks to explore in both the Arsenale and Giardini. A two day ticket costs only 25 Euros, which is well worth the money. There are also a huge number of other galleries and exhibitions (both permanent and temporary, to coincide with the Biennale) running across the city, including new exhibitions by Damien Hirst and David Hockney (neither of which we saw, sadly, as we ran out of time).

And then there is the beach. On my previous two trips to Venice, both less than three days in duration, I didn’t make it as far as the Lido. But with a few days more we were able to hop on the Vaporetto (water bus) and make the half hour journey on two occasions. It’s not the best beach in the world, and it is very busy during the summer, but there are still plenty of sun beds and umbrellas available to rent and it offers respite from the searing heat and busy streets in the city, when sightseeing gets too much.

I need not linger on the food (it goes without saying Italian food is divine); suffice to say if seafood and ice cream are your bag, you will not be disappointed in Venice. I’m pretty sure I’ve come back at least half a stone heavier, but I don’t regret a moment of it!

The Power of Nature

There is so much to be said for getting out of the city and into nature. After a busy few weeks with little time to ourselves, this morning we packed the mountain bikes into the car, selected a place close to Brussels where we hadn’t been before (Gaasbeek) and drove there. The weather was a bit on the glum side for mid-July, but nonetheless it was a joy to roam around the countryside for an hour and a half, cycling past fields of corn and poppies, overtaking people travelling by horse and cart, stopping to admire miniature ponies and baby donkeys, and exploring the impressive grounds of Gaasbeek Castle on foot before heading back to the car.

It’s terrifying to think how easy it would be to never step outside the confines of city life; to subsist on a schedule of work, sleep, the (very) occasional gym visit, drink with friends or snatched moment of downtime. If we never take time to break away, physically and mentally, from the routine, or unplug ourselves from our draining digital and work lives, we risk missing out on the best things life has to offer. Being in nature, even if it’s just the local park surrounded by trees, affords a type of freedom – mental and physical – that is hard to replicate by any other means. It gives us space to daydream, to switch off, to exist without the myriad pressures that weigh us down. It helps us to be the best version of ourselves, untainted by thoughts of what we ‘should’ or ‘must’ do, open to experiencing the moment we are in and being content with that and nothing more.

So here’s to Nature. May none of us become immune to her wonderful healing ways.

Smile, love and be kind

Although I never met her, I have been following Emmy Coates’ battle with cancer ever since she bravely announced it, hoping beyond hope that science would find a way to save her from its clutches and keep her reunited with her childhood sweetheart Jake for longer than the all-too-short time they had together. The sad news of her recent passing at such a tragically young age, and the incredible poise, eloquence and honesty of her grieving husband in the immediate wake of what must have been the worst time of his life have affected me deeply.

These two people and their bittersweet love story (quite honestly, they achieved more in the last year than most people manage in a lifetime, which is surely testament to their jaw-dropping positivity and utter amazingness-if you haven’t been following their story get yourself over to their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ejtandemonium/ immediately and catch up-thats an order*) epitomise what it means to live life fully and in the moment, to cherish the very existence of love and appreciate that, in the end, nothing else matters.

Emmy’s catch phrase of “Smile, love and be kind” will stay with me forever. As will Jake’s words in the blog he bravely wrote after her passing, when he said:

“I wish with all that I am, that I could have just one more day with her. To laugh with, to hug, to kiss, to hold tight.

So make me this promise. Go out. Go to your husband or your wife. Your partner or your lover.

Tell them that you love them. Embrace them. Hold them that little bit longer. Squeeze them that little bit tighter. Whisper sweet nothings and try to forget, just for a moment, those small irrelevant worries. You’re only here in this world for the shortest time and you never know when it might all disappear.”

We take so much for granted in this life, and spend so much time worrying about things that likely won’t even happen – or, as in Emmy’s case, might eventually happen but there is nothing that can be done about it anyway.

In response to Jake’s blog, therefore, I for one promise both Jake and Emmy that I will carry their positivity in my heart for ever, and that I will try my best to not take those I love for granted.

God bless Emmy, you were a shining star in this world and I’ve no doubt you will be a shining star in the next one too.

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*If, like me, Emmy’s story has touched you, I would urge you to make a donation to the Royal Marsden hospital, for whom Emmy and Jake tirelessly fundraised. You can do it through their fundraising page: http://ejtandemonium.com