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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Strengthening Resolve / Finding Wings

It’s been five months since the end of my ‘write every day of 2013’ challenge and I can feel myself drifting. The desire to write – to be a ‘writer’ – has never been stronger, but when I do sit down to write it’s piecemeal, and my attention dots around from short story to novel to sitcom script (this latest addition being the result of my signing up for an eight week sitcom class with the City Academy) like a bee collecting nectar in a flower field. It seems I’ve lost my focus, or my confidence, or both.

I miss the halcyon days of being involved in writers’ groups, both online and in the ‘real’ world. At their best, they offered valuable critique, support and – above all else – comfort that other people were in a similar situation and going through the same painstaking process. Just knowing that others in the group were feverishly beavering away at their works-in-progress was enough to encourage me to do the same, and my output in the early years of my involvement in such groups was impressive.

At their worst, however, I found writing groups to be time-wasting (when you’ve spent two hours critiquing someone else’s work only to find they don’t have the common decency to critique yours in return it makes you wonder whether you should have spent the two hours working on your own writing instead), demoralising (for the same reason) and, well, downright sad (one woman started coming to every meeting with a clutch of business cards and invites to her latest ‘launch’ event – despite the fact she had self-published her book because no publisher in their right mind would print her terrible, clunky prose. I knew when I began to dread hearing her read her latest excerpt that it was time to leave that particular group for good, although I did so with a heavy heart).

My one remaining solace is being a member of a private writers’ group on Facebook, where many of my ‘old’ online writing buddies have also migrated. A lot of them are published now, and I have nothing but admiration for them. I also know the reason they are published and I am not comes down to one primary factor: Resolve. They have not allowed pithy excuses like having too little time to write (my personal favourite) to stop them from doing what runs through their blood. No. They have made the time to turn their works-in-progress into works-in-print, and in doing so have set their creative spirits free to soar into the literary galaxy and beyond.

At this juncture I am therefore teetering on the precipice, knowing in my heart I cannot bear to let another year of writing promise slip through my fingers like the sands of time. And the obvious fact that’s been staring me in the face is only now making itself plainly and uncompromisingly clear: The ONLY way to overcome procrastination, writer’s block and crippling self-doubt is to WRITE: EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Not necessarily on my blog but somewhere, and for a minimum of an hour each day. Only then will I earn my wings to fly. And, make no mistake, fly is what I absolutely intend to do.

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Life is Too Short

Like many people I have a strong desire to be liked, and when a person comes into my orbit who – for whatever reason – does not appear to like me, I usually internalise it and end up blaming myself. Recently, however, my feelings on this issue have begun to change.

Whether it has something to do with the quiet confidence you develop with age I don’t know, but what I do know is this: I am, fundamentally, a nice person. I am a good listener, I am generous and kind. I care about people and about causes. I am not spiteful or mean. I will do anything for those I love.

If certain people do not see my good qualities and choose to treat me disrespectfully, or make false assumptions about my character when they have never sought to understand it, that is their problem. It is not mine.

Life is too short to hate, to undermine and to discredit. We will never get along with everybody, but if we try to recognise that those people we like least have their own set of problems, their own issues and demons to face, perhaps it might help us to find a way to get along – if not as friends then as fellow walkers of this earth, for the pitifully short time we have on it.

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The paranoid extrovert

Human personality theories tend to divide people into two categories; extrovert and introvert. Whereas once it was accepted that for an individual to rank highly on one scale they must automatically rank lower on the other, later theories such as those of Carl Jung claimed that it was quite possible for an individual to exhibit characteristics of both, though one would be more dominant than the other.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, extroversion is “the act, state, or habit of being predominantly concerned with and obtaining gratification from what is outside the self.” Introversion, therefore, is “the state of or tendency toward being wholly or predominantly concerned with and interested in one’s own mental life.” It follows, therefore, that extroverts are generally more talkative, outgoing and gregarious, and their introvert counterparts quieter, more withdrawn and less at ease in social situations.

What category, then, would the world’s writers and artists predominantly fall into? Is the spectrum as wide for this sub-category of the human race, or do the lines blur into one another a little more, like watercolour paint bleeding onto canvas? I only ask because I am (or at least I like to think I am) one of these strange creatures, and because whilst I would put myself firmly in the extrovert camp if asked the question, on further thought I wonder to what extent this is really true. Or rather, whether it’s possible to be an extrovert on the surface, but an introvert deep down inside, where insecurities breed like cancer and one thought spirals into a tornado of many.

Sometimes, for example, I’ll be mid-conversation with someone and my brain will put the brakes on and whisper like a bully in the school playground, “They aren’t remotely interested in what you’re saying, you know, it’s only through politeness that they’re pretending to be.” Even if the person with whom I’m conversing does seem genuinely interested in what I have to say, the voice in my head eats away at my confidence, making every word seem – to me at least – more laboured, less relevant, or just plain wrong. It’s a type of paralysis – thought paralysis, if you will – that makes me want to stop talking and run away and hide. And it’s really rather odd, because if you asked any one of the people closest to me they’d laugh and say that isn’t me at all.

Perhaps it’s wrong to link introversion with insecurity and a general lack of confidence. Many introverts may be supremely confident in themselves and their abilities but simply have no interest in hogging the limelight in social situations. It’s quite possible that makes them more rather than less confident, because they don’t feel the need to seek praise and affirmation in the way the extroverts do.

The part of the definition of being an extrovert that both grates on me and resonates with me is the “obtaining gratification from what is outside the self” part. Why do we extroverts feel the need to seek approval and reassurance to validate our place in the world? Why can’t we accept what is and be happy with our achievements irrespective of praise? All questions that my inner introvert is just dying to answer…

Not sure this picture – taken on my Raleigh expedition in 2011 during filming of a ‘music video’ – quite illustrates my point about being an introvert….