Speaking Shame

Today I am feeling discombobulated and out of sorts. Tiredness is making it hard to process my emotions, but I am trying to allow myself to feel them instead of burying them; to appreciate that, in this moment, this is how I’m feeling, and whilst it may not be that pleasant to feel this way, it’s okay, and it will pass. I have learned through my studies that acknowledgement without judgement and self-compassion are essential when dealing with negative emotions, so as well as doing my best to practice those I’m trying to rebalance my mind and body with gentle exercise classes like Pilates and Body Balance (particularly the latter with its mix of Pilates, Tai Chi and Yoga).

As part of my Master’s research I’m reading a book called Daring Greatly by shame researcher Brené Brown, in which the author stresses the importance of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable in order to become resilient to shame. In the spirit of this teaching, the following is a snapshot of the things currently swirling around in my brain:

  • I’m worried about the world my son is going to grow up in.
  • I’m worried I’m not doing enough to make it better for him.
  • I’m worried I’m not a good enough mother, that I’m too selfish to ‘do motherhood’ properly.
  • I’m worried about having another child, and whether I would cope.
  • I’m worried about having another miscarriage, or not being able to have another child at all.
  • I’m worried that sometimes I’m not a sensitive enough wife.
  • I’m worried about my ability and motivation to succeed in my chosen field.
  • I’m worried that this venture will fail like others before it, and that I will let this failure eat away at me until there is nothing left.
  • I’m worried about money.
  • I’m worried about (everyone’s) health.
  • I’m worried about death.
  • I’m worried that even when my life is damn near perfect (which it is) I still manage to find things to be worried about.

Many of the things in this list elicit feelings of shame, but as Brown herself says, speaking shame is the first step in defeating it. When we keep these kinds of emotions secret, they send us into a negative spiral, preventing us from connecting and empathising with those around us. They gain power over us, making our focus turn inwards and closing us off from the world. But when we shine a light on those emotions, admit to having them, share them with others, we realise that we aren’t alone in having them, and their power dissipates into the ether.

After writing my list I already feel lighter. What’s on yours?

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Quagmires, Self-belief and Sunscreen

Humans are contrary creatures. We spend our whole lives seeking happiness, meaning and validation, but in the process somehow manage to repeatedly get dragged into the toxic quagmire of anxiety, comparison and ‘never enough’ thinking.

I’ve been languishing in the quagmire again myself this week, worrying about my son’s health – as usual – but this time also about money. We are hardly on the breadline, but we are managing on one income this year. It was a decision we took together that we were – and still are – confident in, but nonetheless there are moments when we waver. Like when the bills are more than we’d anticipated, or when we check the account and realise that we’ve been more frivolous than we should have been for the past few weeks. We knew that moving back to London on one salary would be painful and so it is proving to be.

But it’s important to keep in mind the bigger picture. We made this choice because it’s best for our family that I become self-employed. And the career I have chosen – coaching – is one that is still largely unregulated and full of amateurs. To stand out amongst the crowd I need credibility, and to build credibility I need credentials. The path I have chosen begins with further study, which is why I am taking this year to return to my MSc in Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology at the University of East London. It’s not been an easy road so far this year with my son’s ill health hampering my ability to study, but nonetheless I am managing to forge ahead. Some people have commented that perhaps it’s too much to have a one year old and study for a degree, but keeping up the momentum is critical for my confidence and self-belief.

On that note, I have a tattoo on my right arm which says ‘Believe’ (or ‘Belieber’ as my husband takes great pleasure in saying to wind me up, due to the curly script in which it’s written. But I digress..), in a nod to my writing ambitions. I got the tattoo some years ago when I took the decision to accept a four days per week role in order to devote one day a week to my writing. For a while it went well, I got some commissions for features, was shortlisted for a fiction competition and really felt I was on the right track. But for myriad reasons I got demotivated, lost my confidence, and before long my writing day had turned into an extra day of weekend. I have always regretted this, and, ironically thanks to my tattoo, now have a permanent reminder of what happens when you don’t believe in yourself. But you know what? It spurs me on to never make the same mistake again. This time around I’m older and wiser, and I know in my heart that coaching is what I want and need to do. It will take time and require sacrifice, but I am now in a place where I am able to accept and embrace those truths.

All that said, I still have moments of weakness and self-doubt. I’m only human, after all. But life has a funny way of showing you the way, if only you look for the signs. Take this morning, for example. After a bit of a rough night/morning with my son (bad conjunctivitis, yet another cough, pre-toddler mood swings) I got him to nursery later than planned and was running late for my Body Balance class at Studio Society (I know I sound like such a Hampstead Mum, but I cannot tell you how much this class sorts my head out, it’s literally balm for the soul). I was rushing along the road, battling with my brolly against the wind and the commuters, checking my watch every two seconds to see how late I was going to be and feeling general sense of stress and unease. Then I consciously took a moment to check myself, noting that checking my watch was pointless as it wouldn’t get me there any faster. I decided to let go of the anxiety and trust that my legs would carry me there as fast as they could. If I was a few minutes late to class, so what? The world would keep on turning. And in the end, not only was I only a couple of minutes late, but for the first time today the teacher was ten minutes late! There seemed a certain serendipity in that outcome, and certainly a life lesson.

I have one final point to make in this meandering but cathartic post. In 1999, the year I left school and started university (literally showing my age here), Baz Luhrmann’s song Sunscreen was released. In the years hence I have often found myself returning to the lyrics, and this morning was reminded of these ones specifically:

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
never crossed your worried mind
the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.

When I’m in the quagmire of anxiety, comparison and ‘never enough,’ I try to remind myself that none of the things I am worrying about are actually significant. All that really matters in life, at least as far as I’m concerned, are love (loving and being loved by friends and family) and health. I’m at an age where it’s becoming harder to convincingly wear the cloak of invincibility. Several people close to me have experienced cancer in the past year, and right there are the real troubles that Baz Luhrmann talked about. So for as long as I’m fighting for my lifestyle rather than for my life, I will try to remember how very lucky I am.

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Turning Points

No matter how well you know that life with a baby is one phase after another, it’s hard to think rationally when you’ve been woken up at 3am three days in a row and your normally sweet tempered baby has turned into a raging ball of fury due to teething. Off the back of weeks of illness the past few days have been a bitter pill to swallow, and if I’m entirely honest there have been moments when I’ve genuinely questioned my ability to do this parenting gig. Fortunately such moments pass quickly (everything is just a phase after all), and other moments come along to remind me what an amazing little person I’ve helped bring into the world, and why it’s all so worth it. Like yesterday, when we got out in the sunshine and went walking on Hampstead Heath, and C tried his first dairy free ice cream (damn allergies). Funnily enough the real turning point in this latest low patch occurred after yesterday morning’s horrific poonami episode as we were rushing out the door to the doctor. As I stuffed C’s poo-filled (I kid you not) trousers hastily into the nappy bin, deeming them too far gone to save (much as I consider myself to be these days) I realised in that moment I had the choice of laughing or crying. And as I’d done quite enough crying up to that point I chose the former. Turns out it was the best decision.

Since yesterday’s turning point I’ve felt considerably better. I’m sure the sunshine is playing it’s part, but what’s really made the difference is doing some exercise. When the baby is ill and in hospital/off nursery I go stir crazy being cooped up inside, although I don’t always make the connection with needing to exercise until I’m entrenched in another slump. Yesterday, thanks to various appointments, I ended up walking for two hours, and by the end of the day my mind was so much calmer and clearer. Today after dropping C at nursery (finally back to nursery! Praise be!) I went to my first spin class in what I worked out must be six years. I’ve been doing Yoga, Pilates and Body Balance classes semi-regularly for the past few months but have yet to bite the bullet and get back into cardio. Needless to say I was terrified beforehand and pretty close to requiring hospitalisation afterwards (God help me tomorrow when my body’s had a chance to process what I did to it), but there’s no denying the endorphins that have lain dormant for so long were firmly kicked back into action. Exercise is vital for keeping a balanced perspective, it really helps to prevent a negative mind spiral.

Another thing that has helped to lift my mood has been finally submitting my university extenuation claim. It’s been tough seeing my fellow students approaching submission day (which was yesterday), knowing I couldn’t hope to make the deadline. For a while I convinced myself that maybe I could, but last week’s illness and nursery absence was the nail in the coffin. I have therefore been vigilant in collecting all the supporting evidence that I could to give my claim the best chance of success. Now I’ve finally sent it I feel a weight off my shoulders. I’m still pushing myself to complete it way ahead of the September resit deadline, but at least now I’ve accepted I need more time and can relax a little and give myself a break.

All in all I’m worn down but not defeated. This crazy ride called parenting ain’t getting any easier, but somehow I’m finding the reserves to ride out the rough patches and keep my sanity (just about) intact. Every day that goes by I have more respect for my own mother and all the other mums out there, especially those with more than one child, and/or with children who need extra help and attention. Until you are a mother you cannot comprehend the magnitude of the task; the endless demands, the sleepless nights, the sheer relentlessness of the responsibilities laid out before you, not to mention the fact all of this is FOR LIFE, or at least until your child/ren leave/s home. Then there’s the constant fight for your identity, the longing for freedom and fun and carefree, lazy days. You could actually kick your pre-baby self for not appreciating how much time you had to do as you pleased. But on the flip side, having a child changes you in profound and meaningful ways. It makes you less selfish, more thoughtful, more organised, and it brings moments of such pure and unadulterated joy you could hitherto only have imagined. So, on balance, I’ll take the lows if it means I get to keep the highs. That said, I’d sell a kidney for a decent night’s sleep. Any takers for a sleepover with a nearly one year old tonight?

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