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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Sink, Swim or Self-accept

Self acceptance is a wily old beast. I’ve been chasing it around for years with no success, lying in wait to ensnare it. But it’s always a step ahead, just out of reach. Tonight, though, I had a breakthrough. Because, just as it came barreling past me (as it is wont to do, teasingly), I reached out and grabbed its tail. Just for a second. I let go, obviously, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is I managed to touch it, to make it tangible and real.

Last week I wrote a list of all the things that make me feel guilty. It was long, with the obvious (obligatory) entries about health and diet and exercise. It also mentioned my penchant for a bit of crap TV from time to time, my lack of discipline to write and my lack of ambition.

This week work is ramping up. I’ve been given more responsibility, a new client and the chance to earn a promotion. I didn’t think I was ambitious, yet all of a sudden I feel hungry for it. In two days I’ve racked up several hours of overtime, but instead of feeling downbeat, put upon and weary, I feel calm, confident, happy. Why? Because I realised earlier that it is possible to just let things go; to not worry about coming home late, eating cake, not having time for the gym, not writing, occasionally watching something crap on TV (once in a while, I’m not advocating an unhealthy lifestyle, everything in moderation).

Almost none of the things I guilt over incessantly really matter. In fact, in those rare moments when my vision clears I realise that beneath the layers of guilt I am actually profoundly serene. The things on my to do list can wait until the weekend. I don’t have the mental capacity to worry about all of that as well as working this hard. I can’t do both. Or maybe I can, but I don’t want to. I choose not to. Because ultimately everything in life is a choice. And choosing to accept yourself, with all the foibles that make you who you are, is the best decision you can make.

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Eating Frogs

My old boss used to say ‘time to eat the frog’ when talking about the thing on his to do list that most troubled him – you know, the one that lurks at the bottom, perpetually torturing you with its very existence, until it grows to toad-like proportions, usurping all other tasks. And he was right to eat the frog from time to time, because it’s funny how spending even the smallest amount of time on the things you ritually avoid can instill a sense of calm. Or maybe not so funny, given that procrastination is surely one of the greatest stressors of the modern world.

As a struggling writer (with the emphasis firmly on the ‘struggling’ and often barely on the ‘writer’) it baffles me no end that the things I routinely attempt to hide from are usually related to the one thing I claim to want to do the most. We humans are complex – read ‘stupid’ – creatures. Or maybe it’s just me. Plenty of writers do, after all, write. Many do so for a living. I just dabble part time (or, if I’m really honest, spend 90% of my time worrying about it and 10% actually doing it), and even that is enough to raise my anxiety levels to red. And, while we’re on the topic of anxiety, there’s another by-product of today’s western society, where we have the luxury of almost infinite choice, and yet are simultaneously paralysed by it. In short, we are ruined by our own hands. But then, of course, it’s not all bad. Things rarely are.

The key to not just surviving but thriving in this crazy life is, I’ve begun to realise, taking our feet off the gas pedals once in a while; flicking on the cruise control and acknowledging we can only do what we can do. I’m not advocating laziness, or complacency. But what personal experience over the last thirty three years has shown me is that when I put the most pressure on myself I usually perform the worst. Setting goals is great, but when those goals are metaphorically akin to climbing Everest, it’s unsurprising that it’s often hard to take even the very first step. In scaling back ambition – reigning it in just enough to make it achievable – it dissipates the feelings of anxiety and fear of failure that often stop us from beginning our journey in the first place.

By all means eat the frog – it will invariably make you feel much better. But don’t put so many frogs in your way you have to eat them all. Aside from anything else, it will give you terrible indigestion.

Disclaimer: No frogs were harmed in the writing of this blog post.

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Banishing Self-Indulgence

Earlier today I wrote one of those typical woe is me blog posts, alluding to how hard everything felt, how lacking I was in inspiration etc. But before I posted it I stopped, my finger hovering over the mouse key, and asked myself: What good will it do to share this with the world? It may well be cathartic to get things off your chest, but haven’t you done that just by writing it? Don’t you feel a little lighter as it is? And you know what? I did feel lighter just for having written it. Much like a letter to an ex that never actually gets sent, I had expunged the negative emotions without the need to inflict them upon the world. So that was one thing that happened today.

Another thing that happened was my reading of this article, which can, I believe, be best surmised by the following excerpt:

“The 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.

“We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.”

I don’t know about you, but reading those two paragraphs struck a chord so deep within me that the hairs on my arms stood up of their own volition. Why? Because that person with no time to be ambitious outside work, who feels constantly dissatisfied in a way they struggle to articulate and who spends money they don’t have on ways to make themselves feel better: That person is me. And most likely also many of you. Of course (trust fund children aside) we have to work for a living (and in this respect with a four day week I can complain less than many about my lot), but it’s so true that outside work it takes (what often feels like) a superhuman effort to cultivate the kind of extracurricular activities that leave you feeling wholly satisfied and fulfilled.

But, that aside, the fact is that those with true talent and passion DO manage to make the most of the time they have, no matter how little it is. They don’t sit around complaining about being oppressed and enslaved by the organisations they work for, but rather work out ways to escape their clutches and create opportunities for work – and living – on their terms. Whether incarcerated by consumerism or not, we all have choices. And our choices are the difference between a life of success and a life of failure. Which is a pretty sobering thought.

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The bag like any other

Before Christmas I went shopping for a new handbag. Not being a materialistic person I had waited until my previous handbag was, in wardrobe years, the equivalent of an incontinent 90 year human before accepting it was time to move on, so the task at hand was pressing to say the least.

So there I was in the handbag department of Debenhams, surrounded by row upon row of leather, pleather, patent, snakeskin, dogtooth – the list goes on – searching for the one bag that would accompany me home.

I said I wasn’t materialistic and that is true, but it’s not to say that on the rare occasions I do treat myself to a pair of shoes or handbag I don’t want them/it to be special. Not expensive, but a bit different – original.

But on this day, try as I might I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. This put me in a considerable dilemma, for my current bag was on the verge of popping off to handbag heaven, and waiting for a future shopping excursion may well mean risking an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction (which, let’s face it, would almost certainly happen on a packed commuter train to or from work).

After quite some time deliberating, and with extreme reluctance, I chose a small black tote bag made of shiny rain mac material, with light brown leather handles and bottom, and a silver buckle clasp. It was, I knew with depressing certainty, a bag like any other bag – the kind you see ten a penny of every single day on the underground. Worse, it was the style of bag often touted by posh girls from Chelsea with names like Tallulah and Cheska (only without the designer label and obscene price tag theirs would obviously have).

Feeling glum, I trudged towards the counter with my selection. I stopped half way to take one last glance around the room, hoping by some miracle the perfect bag which had up to this point evaded me would somehow make itself known, before it was too late. And there it was. On a low hanging branch of a display unit, the last of its kind – tasteful dark brown leopard print material with a dark two tone leather flap and silver buckle. In that moment – and many moments since – I truly thought it was the most beautiful bag I had ever seen.

I stooped to pluck it from its perch, checked the price tag and, delighted to find it more than affordable, beat a hasty path to the counter to complete the purchase. Needless to say, the bag like any other was returned to its original location for some unsuspecting soul with lower aspirations than me to pick up and buy.

You will probably be wondering by now why on earth I’ve written five hundred words about buying a handbag. Well, it’s because last night, as I waited for my tube train to arrive, it occurred to me the bag like any other wasn’t just a story, it was an analogy for life. So many people pick a job like any other, a partner like any other – they take the path of least resistance, the one that will provide a decent return but won’t excite or challenge them.

We only get one shot at life, so why do so many of us settle for less than the best for ourselves? Why don’t we take risks, pick partners that excite us, occupations that challenge us? Why do we let ourselves drift and then feel surprise when we wake up one day wondering where our lives went?

I’m so glad I didn’t settle for less than I wanted that day, and I’m determined never to settle for less than I want – and deserve – in life.

After all, who wants a bag – or a life – like any other when, if you search a bit harder, you can find one that’s unique?

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This bag signifies so much more than just a handbag – it signifies the importance of waiting for the right opportunities in life to present themselves, rather than reacting to the most obvious ones. It’s also very pretty, right?