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.

phoenix

Making Peace

Yesterday, after two days of proofreading a document created by a colleague, I sent my comments back in an email. I was tired and feeling overworked, and didn’t stop to think how the email would make that person feel – I was just glad to have ticked another task off my long to do list. Today when they responded saying my comments had upset them my initial (tired and overworked) response was to roll my eyes and feel anger bubbling up inside me. But then I stopped, went for a walk outside, took several deep breaths and thought hard about the situation. My email wasn’t rude, per se, but with hindsight it was tactless. The document I’d been critiquing was this person’s baby, so inevitably my seemingly brusque comments were misconstrued as me thinking the entire document was rubbish, which is far from the case.

The incident made me appreciate just how easy it is for small issues in the workplace to turn into much larger ones, simply by virtue of people’s lack of empathy towards one another due to their own personal issues. And, on a much bigger scale than that, how it’s exactly this lack of empathy towards others that leads to hatred – and wars. This issue is particularly pertinent today as the US launches air strikes against IS militants in Iraq, who are currently attempting to murder the Yazidis and Christian minorities whom they have displaced from their homes, in what seems to be verging ever more closely on an act of genocide. What makes these militants – and, for that matter, the Israeli and Hamas fighters in Gaza – think they are better than those they seek to wipe out? Don’t they realise at our core we are all the same: Human beings who are trying to make our way in a conflict-ridden world?

I will never forget the stories I read as a child about the soldiers in the front line during the First World War, who downed their weapons on Christmas Day and came out of the trenches to play games with the opposition; English and German soldiers united in one moment of peace, when just twenty four hours later they would be tearing one another apart.

It makes me sad to think of all the hate in the world, and days like today remind me that I’m not immune to creating animosity myself, even when I don’t mean to. Our moods are not always easy to control, but if we all put a bit more effort into thinking how they affect other people, and appreciating that those people are working through issues of their own, I really think there would be more peace in the world.

Happy Friday everyone – be nice to each other.

Nice-Pigeon-Wallpapers

On Writing Autobiographically

During last night’s crime writing class at the City Lit we discussed characterisation. I told the group I was intent on making the protagonist of my latest story as unlike me as possible. Why? Because I’ve realised that, all too often, I write characters as if they were, in fact, me, and whilst Polly Courtney said at last week’s Writers’ & Artists’ conference that most people write their first novel autobiographically (“because they have something to get off their chest”), in my case I fear it might be more to do with laziness than self-expression. I worry that in writing characters who are based, no matter how loosely, on me, I’m closing myself off to a host of far more interesting and complex characters. Not only that, I’m failing to examine their personalities thoroughly enough to be able to fully inhabit them, as I’m assuming they would have the same thoughts and feelings as I would, when this isn’t necessarily (and indeed shouldn’t) be the case.

After a written exercise, wherein we were encouraged to introduce our characters by name (“My name is X…”) and elaborate on how they felt about that name, whether it had any connotations/associations etc., we had a group discussion. One of my fellow students said she didn’t like the character she had written about in the exercise – in fact, more than that, she actively disliked her. The teacher was concerned about this, and said that if a writer is unable to empathise with their protagonist they must at least be able to foster a sense of curiosity about them. For example, what experiences have shaped them into the person they are today (or at the time your novel is set)? Why do they hold certain viewpoints and like or dislike certain things?  

A useful exercise in characterisation, we learned, is to take your main character and write about them both ‘from the inside out’ and ‘from the outside in.’ In other words, write one paragraph ‘as’ them (a letter to a loved one, for example) and then answer a series of questions ‘about’ them (e.g. what is their favourite colour/food, what do they like/dislike etc.). One particularly pertinent and often revealing question is ‘What does he/she dislike most about him/herself,’ as it often gives rise to useful insights into their inner psyche.

The lesson, I suppose, is that if you don’t completely identify with your main character that’s fine, so long as you like them sufficiently to be curious about who they are and what makes them tick. What is certain is that during the creative process you’ll be spending a huge amount of time with this person, so it has to be someone you’re happy to hang out with – or you’ll likely have a pretty miserable time writing it!

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Essentials – Day Two

Today – the second day of my Essentials Psychosynthesis course- has been extremely emotionally draining. We started the day with some exercises that made me feel exhilarated (not to mention awed by the power of my own imagination) but as the day went on I covered more emotionally  rocky areas that brought some surprising emotions to the surface.

I have no wish to discuss those emotions in this blog, or to recount the content of my therapy session this evening. But what I will say is I’ve been struck by the empathy and sensitivity of the therapists in all the sessions I’ve observed and taken part in. I’ve also been impressed by the various methods they’ve used to draw things out of their clients, and the positive ways in which the clients have responded.

I came to this course because of my work, but increasingly am seeing a whole new world of possibilities opening up to me. I’ve also met some amazing and inspirational people, many of whom I’d genuinely like to keep in contact with once the course is over.

Above all else I’m learning experientially just how many commonalities there are in the human condition, how similar are our wants, our needs and the sources and causes of our pain. I’m witnessing and experiencing empathy in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever truly done before, and I feel curious and greedy for more.

I’ve also learnt some valuable coping strategies for my own issues, which I plan to put into practice with immediate effect. Whoever says therapy is pointless needs to give it a try, because in the right environment and at the right time it can be so very powerful.

I was telling the story of my chance meeting with a Sadhu in north India to my fellow students earlier today, and as it’s both recent in my mind and representative of situation I found peaceful thought it appropriate to share this pic.

Third sector issues: On managing risk and reputation of a brand

This morning I attended one of the many excellent brand breakfast sessions organised by Charity Comms. Today’s session, on managing risk and reputation, was led by Jill McCall, senior brand manager at Cadbury’s, and Adrian Thomas, head of external relations at the British Red Cross (who hosted the event and provided some delicious bacon rolls to boot).

Jill discussed how important it is for organisations to stay close to their product, citing the recent horse meat scandal as an example of a company that took its eye off the ball and is now suffering the repercussions. She also talked about the halo versus horns effect, the phenomenon whereby consumers (and indeed the media) are more likely to forgive indiscretions of liked and/or trusted brands and more likely to vilify those they deem unlikeable or untrustworthy.

The key take-outs of Jill’s session for charities were to:

  1. Keep product at the heart of all marketing activities
  2. Make sure you have clear brand values that are lived throughout the company
  3. Build an open and diverse culture where colleagues feel comfortable highlighting risks, rather than pressured to keep quiet

Something else Jill touched on was the importance of being open, honest and responsive, particularly in the event of a crisis situation. Richard Branson was used an example of a CEO with notable credentials for crisis management, his success lying in the fact he shows great empathy for those affected.

Adrian’s session focused on charities’ relationships with the media and the public respectively. “Brand,” he said, “is what people say about you when you’re not in the room” – a true and insightful statement, especially in the digital age where “stories travel globally in seconds.”

Adrian’s top tips on reputation management were:

  1. Rapid rebuttal of unfounded/untrue reports
  2. Demonstrate accountability – take a ‘nothing to hide’ approach
  3. Don’t get drawn into squabbles you can’t win (particularly relevant for organisations that have trouble with trolls on social media)
  4. Condemn genuinely inappropriate behaviour – take swift action

He also highlighted the importance of being responsive rather than defensive, being transparent at all times and apologising if necessary – because, as Jill mentioned, it’s the human touch that people appreciate and that are more likely to improve brand reputation.

Having worked for one of the most well-known charities in the UK for the past sixteen months I was struck (not for the first time) by the similarities of the challenges faced by large corporate organisations and large charities. In these times of austerity it seems consumers and supporters alike are, understandably, less prepared to blindly pledge their allegiance and more demanding when it comes to knowing what their favourite brands and charities really stand for.

In some ways large charities have a better time of it during tough financial periods simply by virtue of the fact they are better known, but the challenge of that is the high expectations of their supporters, not to mention the ‘corporate effect’ that Jill touched on in her presentation where they risk becoming so big that they’re no longer able to stay true to their core values – though of course size alone is not an indicator of integrity, it’s governance that ultimately determines whether an organisation adheres to its values or not.

The challenges are greater still for smaller charities like the one I’m soon to join; not only do they have to fight tooth and nail to wrestle their rightful share of the ever decreasing fundraising pot from their larger counterparts, they also have to strive (on comparatively miniscule budgets) to build their brand and keep their heads above the third sector parapet, or risk disappearing forever beneath the swirling waters within.

Challenges, then, all round, which makes the lessons learned in today’s brand breakfast all the more pertinent.