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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Reflections on 2015

Another year has passed, and for me it’s been a year of firsts: the first year of living abroad, the first working for a PR agency, and also the first as an engaged lady. As I sit here reflecting on the last twelve months I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Many people do not have the wonderful things I have: loving and unswervingly supportive family, fiance and friends, a good job, a great apartment in a city that I have come to love, and the means (well, almost – thanks to the expense of our 2016 wedding this point is a work in progress) to pursue the lifetime of adventure that I crave.

Many of this year’s events have highlighted the shocking disparity between those of us who have, essentially, ‘lucked out’ in life’s lottery, and those who have never even had the opportunity to buy a ticket. I have been particularly affected by the refugee crisis, which, as residents of Brussels, has been literally on our doorstep – both in Brussels and in the ‘jungle’ of Calais that we pass by so regularly on our Eurostar trips home to visit friends and family. How easily we Europeans take for granted our freedom of movement, when our brothers and sisters from Syria and Sudan have nothing but doors slammed in their faces when they try to pass through borders and seek escape from persecution and a better life for themselves and for their families. Their plight is heartbreaking, and the ability of so many to turn the other cheek nothing less than horrifying.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Sometimes, just as I am about to despair of humanity altogether, something will come along to restore my faith. And the many ordinary people who have been galvanized by the refugee crisis into coming together to help have done just that. I have been following in particular the activities of The Worldwide Tribe, a fantastic group of young people from the UK who have been documenting the experiences of those in the Calais jungle, and in the process raising money to help improve their situation. Such dedication and commitment to this important cause is awe-inspiring, and goes to show that anyone can make a positive difference in the world, if only they have the drive and determination to do so.

I hope that those for whom 2015 was challenging will find fresh perspective, hope and happiness in 2016. And for everyone else, keep doing what you’re doing! May your year be filled with peace and love.

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Gratitude, Acceptance and Umbrellas

It’s been a while since I last updated my blog. This is, in part, because I’m currently focusing on addressing some of the issues in my life that are blocking my path to fulfilment and success. At the moment I’m reading two neuropsychology books, one on Hardwiring Happiness by Dr Rick Hanson (whose TED talk on the issue can be viewed here), and the other on conditions arising from neuropsychological damage, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by the brilliant (and, sadly, now also suffering from terminal cancer) Oliver Sachs. Alongside the Chopra Centre guided meditations that I am trying to do on a regular basis (which I think I mentioned in a previous post), these books have been helping me to understand some key facets* of the human condition that need cultivating in order to experience true fulfilment. These are:

Part One: Gratitude

It sounds obvious, but how many of us really take the time each day to count our blessings? I think I’ve touched on this before, but now more than ever I am realising how important it is to consciously feel gratitude in order to overcome negative emotions like anxiety, jealousy and fear. It is only by recognising the value of what we have – primarily the people in our lives who bring us joy and make us feel secure and loved – that we can create a sense of calm and acceptance. Which brings me onto…

Part Two: Acceptance

This morning I walked past the elderly homeless man who sleeps in a doorway along my route to work. For a time, during January, he disappeared, and I hoped he had found somewhere warm to spend the rest of the winter. But no such luck. Recently he has been back, huddled with his worldly belongings on the grey concrete step. I have wanted to do something for him ever since I first saw him, but was unsure whether he would welcome being approached and offered charity. Today I had my chance, as I had slipped into my bag a slice of the delicious tarte au sucre that was left over from the dinner party I hosted on Sunday night. As I passed him I had the urge to offer it to him. He declined. And you know what? I stifled the selfish compulsion to feel rebuffed, and in that moment realised that acceptance is an important part of coming to terms with life. We can’t change other people; we can only change our own thoughts, deeds and actions. I’m glad I offered him something, even if he didn’t want it, because generosity is part of being human – it connects us to one another, and it makes us feel less alone.

Part Three: Umbrellas

Also on my walk to work today, the air was damp with the drizzle I’m coming to learn is characteristic of life here in Brussels. But rather than putting up my umbrella the second I felt a droplet of water on my forehead, I deliberately waited until the rain was sufficiently heavy to warrant me being protected from it. And in that moment it occurred to me the umbrella could be used as an analogy for life:

Life is about learning when you need an umbrella to protect yourself – and when you are strong enough to walk in the rain.

The path I’m currently treading makes me feel ever more keenly that it isn’t possible to protect ourselves from the negative things in life – they are an intrinsic part of it. What matters is working on our ability to face them head on; to be humble, selfless and brave.

*Interestingly, one meaning for the word ‘facet’ in the dictionary is ‘one of the small, polished plane surfaces of a cut gem’ – it struck me this was also a good analogy for life, which has so very many different aspects, hence the image I have chosen to accompany this post.

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I never knew facets could be so beautiful.

Giving thanks

This morning at work we had an informal staff meeting, during which everyone (there were about twenty of us present) was asked to ‘check in’ – a technique used in the psychology practice that underpins the work the charity does. When you check in, you simply tell the other members of the group how you are feeling, and any other information that you wish to share. Today, for example, we all talked about our experience of the summer, where we’d gone on our various holidays and how we generally felt the season had gone. We also talked about our work, sharing our successes and any challenges we had faced. At the end of the meeting one of our facilitators and two of our young people turned up and joined in, which felt really lovely and inclusive.

I must be honest and admit that I usually begin sharing sessions like these with an attitude more befitting of a petulant teenager than a grown adult. I feel a bit awkward and embarrassed, and I can’t concentrate for worrying about my ever increasing to do list and how the gathering is delaying me actually getting any work done. But as soon as the sessions begin I start to relax. And today, as I listened to all the positive things my colleagues said I felt a warm glow and a real sense of pride at being part of such a fantastic and inspiring team.

It strikes me as I write this how sad it is that few people take the time to really get to know the people they work with and spend what is, let’s face it, the majority of their waking lives in close proximity to. When work builds up and you’re feeling the pressure it’s far easier to fire off an email than pick up the phone or meet face to face. It’s also easy to let small niggles about another person build up so that, before you know it, your whole relationship has deteriorated beyond all repair, with you treating one another at best like automatons and at worst with ill-disguised contempt rather than as fellow human beings with feelings, wants and needs.

Key to the checking in process is the act of congratulation – praising people for the things they have done well, and saying it from the heart. It really means so much to be recognised for your achievements, not in a generic appraisal email but in person and in front of your co-workers. This is why, despite the inevitable frustrations that arise in any workplace, I’m so thankful to work in an environment where people genuinely care. Don’t get me wrong, we’re hardly the Waltons of the work world – far from it – but it’s certainly a world away from the hard, corporate environments I’ve worked in before. And you know what? At this stage in my life, that’s more than enough for me.

How could I not be inspired working alongside these fab young people?

Acts of charity

I’m currently reading Khaled Hosseini (he of Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns fame)’s wonderful new book, And the Mountains Echoed. In it (don’t worry, no spoilers ahead) there’s a character who makes great gestures of kindness, but who only ever does so in a very public way. In other words, it could be said that were he not to get recognition and praise for his actions, he might not feel it worth doing them in the first place.

This morning I rose early to run from my flat in Clapham to the flat my boyfriend’s just moved out of in Camden. I needed to do the run as part of my half marathon training, but had selected the route as I’d been asked by my boyfriend to pick up the last of his things, and latterly also by his flatmate to pick up the sofa cushions from the dry cleaners. None of this was any trouble as far as I was concerned, I was happy to do them a favour and help out.

When I reached the dry cleaners and discovered there was an outstanding charge of £35 on the cushions, however, I’ll admit my spirit of generosity waned somewhat. Fortunately I had brought my cash card and was able to pay, after which I duly traipsed back to the flat to put the aforementioned covers back onto the cushions – which turned out to be far from an easy task given their size and the amount of feathers that flew out with every squeeze. Fifteen minutes and several swear words later I was standing in the living room triumphantly surveying my handiwork in successfully reintroducing the cushions to their covers – the downside being that I was now ankle deep in feathers and the living room looked like an illegal cock fighting ring. Cue an impromptu tidy up mission and more cursing, whilst the part of me that had so happily agreed to do the favour in the first place steadily began to regret the decision.

The main – rather uncharitable -thought that went through my head at that final moment was “they’d better appreciate this,” which is when I drew a parallel with the character in the novel I’m reading, and also when I wondered the following question: Is doing someone a favour any less charitable if it’s not the act of doing the favour that gratifies you but rather being thanked for having done it? Furthermore, do we as human beings have a deeper desire to help one another or to help ourselves? Which is the most prominent driver?

Those who do favours for others gladly and happily without grumbling or expecting thanks are clearly the most admirable. But surely there’s still something to be said for the rest of us mortal beings who do favours for others and do then expect thanks in return? After all, there are plenty of miserly souls out there who would rather stab themselves in the eye than do a favour for someone else in the first place….Right? Or wrong?

Two simple words

This weekend I’ve spent a lot of quality time with family and good friends, something I realise I haven’t done nearly enough of in recent months. It’s so easy to get complacent about the people closest to you. They’re not going anywhere, after all. But it’s precisely because they’re not going anywhere – because they love you unconditionally, because they’ll never let you down – that you should make an effort to keep them at the centre of your life. They’re the people who understand you better than anyone else, the ones you feel most comfortable being your true self with. They’re the ones who can provide a listening ear and shoulder to cry on one minute and make you laugh like a drain the next. In short, you need them to be you – why wouldn’t you cherish them?

I’ve also spent time this weekend reconnecting with friends – both in person and by email – who I made on my various travels over the past few years. I find these types of friendship so interesting, because you don’t share a history but you do create an unbreakable bond as you make new memories together. People who meet whilst travelling the world alone already have something in common – they’re searching for meaning in their lives, hoping for an adventure, maybe even trying to escape from a negative situation in the ‘real’ world that they’ve left behind. Whilst these kinds of friendships are very different to the friendships that have stood the test of time and turbulence, they are no less important. They teach you just as much about yourself – if not more – and should be valued and nurtured accordingly.

Then there are the friends you don’t even know that well, or who you’ve long since fallen out of regular contact with, who contact you out of the blue to wish you well and offer words of support and encouragement at just the right time. Several such friends have done just that for me in the past week. Their kind words really picked me up when I was plagued with self-doubt about my writing, and they’ve given me the strength to carry on.

Thinking about peoples’ tendency to be complacent towards their friends has, in turn, made me think about the simple act of saying thank you – not just when a stranger holds a door open for you or gives their seat up for you on the train, but to the people you know and love. To be a good friend, parent or sibling takes a degree of selflessness, you must be prepared to put your own ego aside and put that person before yourself. So when someone does that for us, shouldn’t it follow that we show our gratitude in some way?

In light of the above I’d like to do a little roll call to acknowledge all the people who have supported me and made me smile in the past week – family and friends both old and new:

Thank you Mum and David, Rory, Hayley Norrish, Anna Bullock, Amy Roberton, Gabrielle Liddle, Jen Chardon, Alex Sayer, Kaye Dolan, George, Caroline and Milo Watson, Mouse Bunch, Sian Brace, Lucy Caslon, @benjaminmurdoch, @cripesonfriday, @adeteal, @beyond_nadia, @SirHeppe, @matthewpaulgray, @BinaryDad, @dogtaniontastic, @teenybella – you’re all absolutely ACE 🙂

And a general thank you to all the friends and family who I haven’t mentioned above who have – at various times and in various places – put up with me, helped me find hope in hopeless situations, and generally just been there. You know who you are xxxx 

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I can’t think of a better picture to go with this post than this, of me and my best friend at my mum and stepfather’s wedding. We were six years old and completely different (me a girly girl, my best friend a tomboy – hence the colour of our dresses!) but we were – and still are – inseparable. True friendship that stands the test of time doesn’t require you to be the same – it requires you to appreciate your differences, and be there for one another through thick and thin. I’m so fortunate to have wonderful friends who have done just that for me.