Breaking the Chains of the Subconscious

It’s been said that human consciousness is like an iceberg, where only 10% is conscious thought and 90% unconscious (or sub-conscious) thought. That’s a helpful analogy when we consider why making life changes can be so hard to do. Our conscious minds may be determined to do something, but our subconscious minds are creatures of habit – many old and ingrained habits that are difficult to break.

The first step to breaking the invisible shackles of the subconscious mind is to bring conscious awareness to them. In my own life, I see this moment as a critical turning point to do just that. For too long I have allowed my inner critic to (consciously and unconsciously) sabotage my attempts to make changes. I’ve always dreamed of making a living out of writing and helping people, but have somehow always managed to put barriers in my way. Not anymore.

Tonight I made a commitment to myself. A commitment to keep my goals and motivations above the line of my conscious thought. A commitment to try and stop talking myself down, comparing myself, worrying what others think, telling myself it’s all just too big to be achievable. A commitment to following through, no matter what it takes.

I had a long bath and thought about what I would like to do more of in order to be closer to who and what I want to be. And instead of the usual suspects a new list came, unbidden (perhaps from my subconscious?):

  • Educate myself in my chosen profession (read about different coaching approaches and styles, commit to continued learning and professional development)
  • Find my Tribe (attend networking events, listen to Podcasts etc.)
  • Document my journey (write more blogs/personal diaries)
  • Read for pleasure (actively search for books I will enjoy, instead of reading any old thing that comes along)
  • Have compassion for myself, trust the process/journey (read more literature in this area)
  • Self-care (more long baths, less screen time, more exercise – especially outdoors, regular massages)
  • Live more mindfully/environmentally

So there I have it. A new list of Things to Live By. A list that sits so perfectly with my values that it must have come from my subconscious. I know the path to change is never easy, but for the first time in a long time I feel confident that I am taking big strides in the right direction.

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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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Eight Months In: All Change

The last three months have been, for want of a better word, insane. In November, after weeks of searching for – and finding – a new (two bed – more room for baby) flat in Brussels, it was all-change on my husband’s job front and we had to abandon signing the new tenancy agreement at the eleventh hour and re-focus our attention on finding a new flat in London to move into the first week of January. With a seven month old baby this was not the easiest task, but somehow I managed a two day trip to London with a ridiculous amount of luggage and my son for a series of back to back flat viewings, half of which I had to cancel due to a 1.5 hour delay on the train (thanks for that Eurostar). And the good news is that despite the cancellations and the tight timeline we were hugely fortunate to find a place that ticked almost every box.

Upping sticks and leaving Belgium so suddenly has been difficult to adjust to. One minute we thought we would be there for at least another year, the next we were moving back to London, the city where I lived on and off for 10 years but in all honesty didn’t see myself returning to live in, especially with a baby. But here we are. And now the dust is starting to settle I am seeing the many positives to this move. For one, we are closer to our friends and family. For another, I have been able to switch from a distance learner to an on campus student to complete the remainder of my Master’s course, which has just re-started after a year’s hiatus. The move also forced my hand where returning to work was concerned. I knew I didn’t want to to return to my job, but had been feeling nervous about quitting with nothing else lined up. Now I have the freedom not only to re-start my studies but also pursue my dream of becoming a freelance coach. And we have managed to find a lovely nursery for our son to attend three days a week whilst I pursue my goals.

In short, everything is positive. And as much as I don’t want to put a ‘but’ in here, I have to be honest and admit the last few weeks have been really tough. Our son is wonderful and he lights up my life, but the nights are still not great and besides being chronically tired I am constantly battling the inherent mum guilt about his well-being (Is he eating properly? Is he stimulated enough? Am I doing any of this right?) Since we returned to London my anxiety has returned ten fold, for reasons I can’t fathom other than a combination of tiredness, hormonal changes and a latent reaction to the stress of the past few weeks. C starting nursery the week before last was also anxiety-inducing, and since he started he’s had back-to-back coughs and colds which is inevitable but has nonetheless been tough to deal with. As his mother and the one who is not technically working in a nine to five role, the responsibility for his welfare lies with me. If he’s sick, I’m up all night with him, and I have to pick him up early from nursery. If the nursery is closed for bad weather (which is on the way, apparently – wonderful), he has to stay at home with me. Suddenly, the three days I have earmarked for work and study disappear, and my stress and anxiety levels increase. On the two week days I am scheduled to have him with me I worry that I should do more with him. The one downside to our new home is that the nearest park (Hampstead Heath) is a half an hour walk away, and in the immediate vicinity the pollution levels are very high (another thing I worry about, especially given our son is showing signs of having a weak chest). Whereas in Brussels I would take him out every day in the local area, here I wonder if it’s good for him to be constantly exposed to all of the pollution. But if we don’t go out my mental health plummets and he gets bored.

I hope I don’t sound ungrateful. Not a day goes by when I don’t count my many blessings. But burying emotions isn’t healthy, and maternal mental health is an important issue that needs to be discussed. It’s been eight months since I had my son and at least three days a week I still feel like I’ve been hit by a freight train. I do think the sleep deprivation is a big part of that, especially after a recent meeting with friends whose babies sleep through the night. But it’s more than that. Having a baby is wonderful, but if you already had issues with self-esteem and anxiety before baby came along, the addition of tiredness, raging hormones and the overwhelming feeling of responsibility that comes with being a mother can really mess with your head. Nobody discusses it but they should, because I’m certain I’m not alone in feeling this way. Some days are good, others are really, really bad. Even now. Especially now. Because now is when I thought I’d feel completely normal again. And sometimes I feel anything but.

But. Today is a good day. It didn’t start well, admittedly (son crying non-stop from 5am), but now C is at nursery, I am at my computer with (hopefully) a good few hours of study ahead of me, I have (much-needed) coffee and the sun is shining through the window. It is in moments like this I remember to breathe in, breathe out, to cherish, to soak it all up; the good, the bad and the indifferent. This crazy life. My life. Is. Beautiful.

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Reflections at a milestone / mini lesson in Cognitive Behavioural Coaching

I just finished my twelfth hour of coaching, a core component of my Master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology.

Frankly, I feel elated. But when I thought “I’ll write a blog about this feeling,” my inner critic leapt up and shouted “OI! You should be doing coursework! Don’t let one victory make you complacent! You are still WAY behind!”

This reaction made me laugh, because the aspect of coaching that has resonated most with me so far is the concept of ‘performance inhibiting thoughts’, or PITs. We all know them, those cranky little digs we give ourselves about the things we ‘should’ or ‘must’ do, or the reminders that we are ‘always’ doing this, or that someone else is a big fat so and so, and as far as you’re concerned that’s that.

Since I’ve learned about them I’ve been calling myself out a million times a day. The above examples are just a few of the many ways our inner critics seek to sabotage us on a daily basis.

The key to moving past them is as follows:

  1. Notice when you do it – all the times you label yourself or someone else, the times you overgeneralise or catastrophise situations, the times your views are rigid. Just catch yourself, make a mental note, or even write it down if you like (that’s a great way of internalising it and means you are more likely to succeed in conquering it).
  2. When you have a quiet moment, sit down and read through the list of PITs you have picked up on.
  3. For each one, challenge the assumption, and reframe it in a positive way. Write the new thought down beside the old one.
  4. Next time you catch yourself doing it, recall the associated Performance Enhancing Thought (PET).
  5. With practice, you will re-train your brain!

Thus ends today’s lesson in Cognitive Behavioural Coaching. You’re welcome 😉9c02a298faaebec58a66b077659828b0

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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New Horizons

I alluded in a previous post that it hadn’t been the easiest start to the year. For various reasons it’s felt as if things have been in a state of limbo, and the planner in me has found this hard to handle. But one thing that is very much pressing ahead – whether I like it or not – is my Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology, which I am undertaking alongside my full time job on a part time, distance learning basis with the University of East London.

For years since graduating from my original Psychology degree (in 2002 – scary) I have had an itch to return to psychology. I’m pretty sure my friends and family thought it was a ‘grass is greener’ situation, and at times I thought the same, but something kept making my mind return to the idea. And now, almost fifteen years later (better late than never), here I am, enrolled on an MSc and already four days in.

I won’t lie, it’s terrifying. All the old feelings of inadequacy have already begun to surface, and I find myself thinking ‘I can’t do this’ and ‘Everyone else is going to be better’ at least ten times a day. But, at a deeper level, there’s excitement; a spark has been ignited after years of being dormant and it’s filling me with hope for the future. I’m older (a lot), wiser (a bit) and ready to give this everything I’ve got.

It’s not going to be easy. The social butterfly in me is already pining for fun nights out and carefree weekends. But this is important. It’s my chance to see if I’ve been right to harbour this longing; if I’ve really got what it takes to succeed in this field. If I wasn’t scared alarm bells would be ringing. That’s how I know I’m on the right track.

My first term module is coaching, and already I’m expected to be recruiting coachees (more info on that here), which is sending my imposter syndrome into overdrive. At the same time, I’m feeling a healthy curiosity about my ability to coach, how quickly I’ll pick up the skills and how much of a rapport I will build with my coachees.

Ultimately, what excites me the most is that this could put me on a totally different career path. Hopefully soon the limbo phase will be behind me once and for all.

 

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