Rising from the Ashes

Dad told me I should write more. At the very least some updates on my blog. His dream of having an award-winning novelist of a daughter seems to be dying by the day. And, yet, from the glowing embers of this dream a phoenix (of sorts) is rising. It’s small and scraggy now, stumbling on Bambi-esque legs amongst the ashes, coughing and shielding its eyes from the light. But it exists, this spectre of old, only now coming into being after years of steady manifestation.

By ‘It’ I am referring to my venture back into the world of psychology, and, simultaneously, my journey into the unknown-and-terrifying-yet-also-exciting world of coaching – in the form of a combined Master’s degree.

It’s not exactly how I’d planned it. We thought we’d be in New York City by spring. I’d envisaged endless cups of coffee, walks in Central Park with a new puppy; days stretching out with nothing but study and writing and play. But life doesn’t always work out how you planned. Which means that sometimes you just have to play the hand you’ve been dealt.

We’re not going to New York anymore. Already it feels like a pipe dream blowing in the wind. At first I shed a lot of tears, and then berated myself for mourning a life that never was. The tears dried up. Reality bit. I’d signed up for this Master’s safe in the knowledge I’d have ample time to devote to it. At most I’d have been working on a part time basis. Now, things have changed. We’re still in Brussels, and will be for the foreseeable future. I still have a full time job (really a full-and-then-some time job). Suddenly the very thought of finding more than twelve hours a week to do my course work has me coming out in hives. Right now I’m barely managing six.

I am exhausted. There have been more tears, for this and other – more personal – reasons that I won’t go into here. I am struggling to find my equilibrium. I tell myself that I should meditate and then remember that ‘should’ is a performance inhibiting thought; a thinking error. I’m learning all kinds of new things like this, even though I make such errors daily, sometimes hourly. I tell myself I’m not good enough on a constant repetition loop in my head. Compare myself to others. Panic. I do a LOT of panicking.

And then I switch on my computer, turn on Skype and I become a coach. I listen attentively and empathetically. I silence my inner chatter and focus on another person for a whole hour. And I take them through a process, and share with them what little I know of concepts like self-limiting beliefs. And, like magic, almost always there’s a moment when their faces light up and they get it, really get it. And in that moment I’m suffused with so much joy and energy. Which is how I know that even though it’s hard, and will likely get harder, and even though I don’t know where I’m going to end up, I’m on the right path.

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The Happy Place

Despite the wonderful Thanksgiving dinner that our friends hosted last night, I woke up this morning feeling sad. R only got back from five days away at 6.30pm last night, and left again today at midday for a work trip. Lately we’ve been like ships passing in the night, and the next couple of weeks promise to be just as tough. It’s hard sometimes living the crazy life we lead, but at least we both recognise the importance of staying emotionally connected as much as we can, despite the challenges. There is a lot going on and potentially some big changes afoot for us both – all very exciting, but transition always brings with it a certain trepidation.

So anyway, I woke up feeling sad and when R left felt even sadder. But instead of sitting around moping I gave myself a much-needed kick up the arse and went for a walk to my happy place, Tenbosch Park. There is one specific spot where I love to sit and listen to the birds tweeting and just breathe. In. Out. Until I feel calm again. It works every time.

Sometimes the world comes crowding in and it’s hard to get perspective, but there is always a way to get back to what matters, and, for me at least, it usually involves seeking out nature. Trees have a particularly calming effect on me, I think because so many of them have been there for so long, standing tall and strong. Nothing moves them, or riles them. I find them inspiring, and always think when I’m amongst them that I need to take a leaf (excuse the pun) out of their book and not let things get to me so much.

Life is crazy. The best way to deal with it is to accept it and enjoy the ride. Happy Sunday 🙂

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Therapy Talk

At the beginning of 2015 I had a strange and unsettling episode that harked back to my days as a stressed out third year in university. It was a panic attack, full blown and frightening. Brought on, I think (it’s always hard to pinpoint), by a lack of direction in my life at the time. I had moved to Brussels with my boyfriend and was loving life in Belgium, but my nine month maternity cover job contract was coming to an end and I didn’t have anything else lined up. I was also conscious that my status as a girlfriend rather than a wife in this international setup was somewhat lacking in security. And so, after weeks of internalising my emotions, they built up and burst out of me in a tidal wave of fear. I hyperventilated myself silly, cried and panicked for the best part of an hour. Fortunately my then-boyfriend (now-husband – as it turned out I didn’t have to worry about that part) was on hand to offer words of support and encouragement. I calmed down. But I knew something inside me had awakened, and that I would need to find the courage to face it.

And so I did something I never thought I would actually do: I found a counsellor. And I went to my first session feeling embarrassed and stupid, like I was wasting her time and my own. And thinking surely counsellors are for people with real problems, not women whose biggest issues are which job to choose next and whether their boyfriends will decide to pop the question. But as I sat and talked, in the first session and the next, I realised this was about so much more.

We humans are like onions. When you start to peel away the layers you find layers you never knew existed. Each represents experience, and emotion. And until you have uncovered them all it’s hard to appreciate why you are the way you are, why you interact the way you do with others, with the world. And, most crucially of all, how you can adapt your behaviour to bring about positive and lasting change.

Almost eighteen months later I had my final session. It was tonight.

My counsellor asked me what three things I had learned from our sessions. I said, firstly, I’ve learned how to get some perspective. When I feel myself getting anxious, I now have the tools to dissociate myself from the stressor – even if just for a moment. I can then ask myself how big the problem is, really. If it will matter in three weeks, three months or three years. If it’s worth fighting or losing sleep over. And the answer, of course, is usually no. Secondly, I said I’ve learned some valuable coping mechanisms in response to specific situations. The best one was the victim-perpetrator-rescuer scenario, which I have used successfully to navigate occasional tricky patches in relationships. Finally, I’ve learned to be more empathetic towards others, to appreciate they have layers of their own (layers sometimes even they don’t know about). I have a propensity to be oversensitive, but now I have the capacity to realise that people don’t do things with the aim of upsetting me. It’s just the way they are, the way they have been conditioned. Just as my response to their behaviour is the way I have been conditioned.

It’s been a great experience.

I’ve learned a lot: About the person I was, the person I am and the person I want to be.

Now it’s time to take back the reins.

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Eight Weeks to Wed: An Update

Last weekend I went to Las Vegas for my hen party with six close friends. It was predictably fabulous. We crammed an enormous amount of fun into a short space of time and did ourselves – and Vegas – proud. Wild, unbridled hedonism like that is harder to come by as you march inexorably further into adulthood, which is why it’s so important to appreciate it when you have it. The same applies to friendships. Whilst they should be nurtured throughout life, opportunities to  celebrate them become fewer and farther between as the myriad demands of life creep into our daily existence. And so the memories of last weekend and all the laughs we shared will stay with me forever. I am truly grateful.

And now it’s time to look ahead. Eight weeks ahead, in fact, to my wedding day. As a child I always dreamed of this occasion, wondering who I would marry (or, more specifically, who would want to marry me!) Now it’s nearly here it feels surreal, like a dream. The organisation has been a  challenge, but I know it will be worth it when we look around at the hundred or so loved ones who are so generously travelling to Austria to share it with us. I feel so blessed not only to have met the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, and to be so utterly confident in that statement, but also to have such wonderful and supportive people in my life.

Getting married feels like such a grown up thing to do. I feel ready for it, yet at the same time the little girl in me is tugging at my sleeve, chewing her nails down to the stub with worry. Will I be a good wife? A good mother? Am I actually mature enough to take this step? I have always felt a dichotomy within me. On the one hand there is the dreamer, the thinker, the artist; the one who likes to party and who yearns to travel, to explore, to be free. And on the other is the planner, the matriarch-in-waiting who wants nothing more than to care for others, to have a family and thrive on being responsible for others, instead of being concerned only with myself.

In some respects I suppose I’ve always felt that having a family would save me from myself, and stop me from pursuing the relentless search for meaning that drives my every waking moment. But now I’m on the cusp of that I’m filled with fear; of all that I ‘should’ have done up to this point in my life, and of all I will not be able to do if and when I take that next step. I suppose these worries are normal, and that everyone has them at some point in the run up to making such a big commitment to another person.

I don’t expect for one moment that getting married will mean a life free of worry and drama; far from it. But what it will do is cement our partnership in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of God, in whom I do believe, at least in some form. It is a statement of intent on both our parts that we are prepared to put each other first, to work through all our issues together, and to co-create a stable and loving environment for our future children. The divorce rates reported so gleefully in the news don’t bother me at all. Marriage has always been important to me, and I am entering into it with my eyes and heart wide open.

The fun-loving, free-spirited party girl will always be a part of me, I have no intention of shunning her or locking her away. But despite my fears what is becoming ever clearer to me is that I owe it to myself to explore the other side of who I am, to get to know the girl who wants so desperately to help, to make a difference, to put love above all else.

This is a new chapter in the story of my life. And I am ready to turn the page.

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Life Lessons

As Mary Scmich once wrote (and Baz Luhhrman subsequently recorded), in life one must accept certain inalienable truths. One of those truths, in my own meandering experience, is that people are apt to let you down. Rarely will they act a certain way or say a certain thing because it is the kindest response; because it would make you feel better. No, humans are inherently selfish creatures so, more often than not, they will say what makes them feel better, even if that same thing will make you feel worse.

The key to coping with this is learning to accept without internalising; don’t allow the words and actions of others to hurt you; to affect your belief system about yourself and your place in the world. Easier said than done if, like me, you are a sensitive soul who does take things to heart. Even the smallest off the cuff comment meant as a joke can cut deep to the core of you, and make you question yourself. But don’t.

When others react badly it is often a sign of their own insecurity. If they are rude, or they ignore you altogether, so what? It says more about them than it does about you. You are the bigger person. You have love and compassion in abundance and you know who you are, warts and all. Never allow someone else to call those facts into question. You are you. You are unique. And the only thoughts, words and deeds you have any power over in this life are your own. The rest is out of your control.

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Friends Like These

Last Friday, UK-based social media news feeds were awash with post-election bitterness. Profanities, accusations and rudeness abounded between those who were – according to their profile descriptions if not evidenced elsewhere that day – ‘friends’ with one another. Characterised by a desire to shove opinions down each other’s throats whilst savagely and wantonly disregarding the pesky facts of emotional sensitivity and human decency, this was a war of attrition using words as weapons. And by God was it unpleasant.

To quote a friend who has herself been subject to recent politically-charged vitriol:

“Friendship does not spout vile names. It involves two parties making equal effort. It involves honesty delivered with tact and kindness. It involves laughing, a lot. It involves knowing when to step in and when to step back. It involves communication, balanced and regular. Anything that feels one-sided and wrong, probably is.”

Friendship isn’t always easy. As individuals (the clue is in the name), we will rarely find people with whom we always agree. But that’s okay, because being challenged in our views is the best way we can grow – so long as those who are challenging us do so in a way that is considered, measured and, above all else, respectful. Without mutual respect, friendship cannot exist. In its place is a barren wasteland of forced opinions, deaf ears and closed hearts. This world is full enough of hatred as it is. If we turn on those closest to us, what hope is there for a better future?

Another feature of friendship that is paramount to its survival is honesty. So many people let the behaviour of so-called ‘friends’ go unchecked, despite it impacting negatively upon them, because it’s easier to put up and shut up than it is to rock the boat by being honest. But if you can’t be honest with the person in question, can you truly call your relationship a friendship?

Finally, and most importantly of all, friendship cannot flourish without kindness. When we are going through our own struggles, it is easy to forget that others have theirs too. We cannot change the way others behave towards us during challenging times, but we can try to understand and forgive negative words and behaviour, and stop ourselves from getting drawn into a vortex of negativity.

We are, all of us, only human, and our time on earth is short. Friendship is one of the greatest gifts we have, so instead of squandering it we would do well to work on nurturing it.

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On Being Judgemental

I don’t remember much about my religious education at school, but one passage from the Bible I remember very clearly was this one, from Matthew 7:1-5:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the human inclination towards judging others. I like to think I’ve been brought up to be accepting, but the reality is that as a result of my experiences, education and interactions with others, a million layers of conditioning have permeated and fused with the synapses in my brain, and they are influencing me every day without me being consciously aware.

I know this because I occasionally catch myself having a fleeting judgmental thought that doesn’t fit at all with how I view myself as an accepting individual. I am so shocked, in these moments, as I cannot reconcile such thoughts with how I see myself or how I want to be. But, whether I like it or not, those thoughts are a part of me, perhaps not a part I am proud of or happy about, but a part of me nonetheless.

Why do we, as a species, so often seek to ridicule – and, in some cases even hate – that which we don’t understand or identify with? What is it that compels us to develop prejudices that serve only to blind us of the very things in our own character that are flawed and need attention? I do not, nor ever could, pertain to know the answer to these questions. But I can’t help feeling that the world would be a better place if someone could.

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