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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No More Apologies: Why I’m proud to be me – and why you should be proud to be you, too

I care too much what people think of me. I always have. You would think by now I would have grown a thicker skin, especially given how prolific I am on social media, which opens every one of us to ridicule and scrutiny. But I like to share and actively participate in this crazy thing called life. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. I can’t be what I’m not. No matter how much others might prefer me to be.

I thought long and hard before writing this post. I’ve been close to writing it a number of times before, but always chickened out at the last minute. Why? Because it’s difficult to admit we are vulnerable, and that the opinions of others bother us. And yet, it’s human nature that they do. Only the thickest skinned people are able to ride the waves of others’ judgement and come out unscathed; the rest of us find ourselves shipwrecked, time after time.

It’s amazing how cutting a comment can be, how deeply it can slice into your psyche, revealing all your insecurities, making you question everything about yourself. But if you can get past the sting and consider the motive, it says a lot more about the person who made the comment than it does about you. If you’re comfortable in your own skin and believe not only that you are a good person with pure intentions, but also that you have something positive to offer the world, then why shouldn’t you be exactly who you are, all of the time?

Maybe your Instagram posts aren’t to another person’s taste. Well, guess what? They can unfollow you! Maybe they feel you hog their Facebook timeline with pointless updates. Here’s an easy solution: They can turn down the frequency of your posts. Hell, they can even unfriend you if it bothers them that damn much. Nobody has to engage with another person if they don’t want to.

My point is, you shouldn’t have to tone down who you are because someone else doesn’t like it. Ever. It’s taken me almost thirty six years to realise this, but thank God I finally have. That’s why I choose not to listen to the voices of negativity. I choose to trust myself and my path and my calling. I choose to breathe. I choose to be exactly who I am meant to be. And you have every right to choose the same.

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A life well lived

When I look back on my life (hopefully as an old woman), what will I want to share with my loved ones before I go? This is the question I am asking myself, as I venture into the unknown with my life writing project.

Will I want them to know my favourite colour? What and where I liked to eat and drink? How about the things I liked to read, the places I travelled to, the things I did as hobbies? Or would I rather they knew about my friendships, how deeply I loved, and the way it made me feel to watch the sun set and and birds swooping over the sea?

My heart tells me the latter. What good is it to know the surface attributes of a person? They are nothing but veneer and gloss. You have to scratch a little of it off to find the soul that’s underneath, and to get to the one thing – I would argue the only thing – that really matters: love.

Maya Angelou summed it up beautifully when she said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, [they] will forget what you did, but [they] will never forget how you made them feel.”

So, with that in mind, what would you tell your loved ones that would impart just a fraction of the way you made others feel during your lifetime, and the way they made you feel in return? What questions could you answer that would tell them who you truly are, that would leave an imprint of your essence long after you are gone? I’d love to know.

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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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The Resistance

Today things feel a little bleak. On a global level, in five days of office Trump the Tyrant has ridden roughshod over the environment, women’s rights, freedom of speech and now refugees, ushering in a new era of legitimised fascism along the way. On a personal level, my spirit is feeling dampened not only by the events in the US, but also by the plummeting temperatures across Europe which signal further devastation for homeless refugees, the crazy levels of air pollution in my old home town of London where many of my friends still live, and the fact I am under too much pressure at work and don’t know how I’m going to juggle it with the masters degree I’m starting next week (next week!!). In short, I feel helpless, and also a little hopeless.

But – as life sometimes has a way of doing to drag us out of our despair – a chance encounter with my local florist this afternoon when I stopped by for tulips for our cleaning lady (whose brother recently passed away) reminded me why it’s so important to have hope. We got chatting about how beautiful the flowers were, and she told me she had quit her office job some years ago for a simpler life. Despite earning less money now, she told me she is far happier. She then asked about me, and, when I told her I was soon to start an MSc in Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology and had aspirations to be a freelance wellbeing coach she said “the world needs people like that more than ever now.” I felt a surge of optimism at that, and a renewed sense of purpose. And to remind myself of that I bought this beautiful pink orchid.

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Hope springs eternal

When I got home I was delighted to see that Greenpeace had unfurled a ‘Resist’ banner right outside the White House, and to read that a group of scientists are coming together to march on Washington in protest against Trump’s gagging order against employees of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Also heartening was the Badlands National Park Twitter account which sent out three messages on Tuesday promoting climate science despite the Trump administration crackdown on agencies communicating on social media. Since then they have been forced to delete the tweets, but an alternative Twitter account has sprung up which already has 575,000 followers.

This growing groundswell of angry defiance in response to people like Trump must spur us all into immediate action, because action is all there is now if we are to stand up to what is so patently wrong – to save ourselves and our planet.

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Chasing Sunset

I wrote this for the Creative Ink Writing Prompt, but also for a special friend, my twin soul, who is forever chasing summer, and who turns 30 tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Twin xx

She had always loved sunset; the romanticism of one day coming to a close, with the promise of another soon to follow. Flying at sunset was the best, that feeling of cheating time. But it was all too fleeting. You could never cheat time, not really. And that was why she had to leave.

Liv’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She slipped her hand inside and pressed down on the power button until she was sure she had killed it. She couldn’t risk the onset of unwanted emotion. The only way out of this was cold stoicism. And when she got there, well, then she could deal with things once and for all. It would be over.

She didn’t know how long she had been asleep, but the red-rimmed sky had finally succumbed to the blackness of night. Liv rolled her neck from side to side, wincing as she cricked it back into place. The cabin was dark, save for occasional spotlights beaming down onto insomniac passengers like alien spacecraft.

Something brushed her hand, making her jump. It was the little girl sitting across the aisle. By Liv’s estimation she was four, maybe five. Tight black curls and fresh pink lips. Cherubic. Liv looked across at the girl’s mother. She too was beautiful, or at least she would have been were it not for the trail of dribble descending from her open mouth.

“Hi,” the girl whispered.

“Hi,” Liv whispered back, ignoring the tightness in her chest. Her heart.

“I’m Becky. What’s your name?”

“Liv.”

The girl regarded her with such a look of scrutiny that Liv felt unnerved. Of course she didn’t know her secret, she couldn’t know it. And yet.

“Can we be friends?”

Liv smiled. “Of course.”

Becky’s face shone from the inside out. Her lips parted to reveal a gap-toothed smile. Liv wondered if she was perhaps older than her original estimation. She watched as the girl reached into the pocket of her pinafore dress, screwing her face up in concentration as she tried to retrieve something. Eventually she pulled her hand out with a flourish, extended her arm and unfolded her fingers. In the centre of her palm was a turquoise stone. “Take it,” she said.

Liv picked up the stone and ran her finger along its surface. It was smooth and round, and though it was dark she could make out flecks of glitter in its swirling pattern. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

“It’s yours,” the girl replied.

“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly…” She offered the stone back to the girl, but she shook her head and refused to take it.

The girl’s mother stirred beside her, opened her eyes and looked down at her daughter. She followed her gaze to Liv, and when her eyes alighted on the stone in Liv’s hand her breath caught in her throat. “Becky, darling,” she said, her voice measured but tense. “Why did you give this lady your stone? Don’t you want it?”

The little girl looked up at her mother and shook her head. Her mother smiled as if this meant something momentous, but Liv had no idea what. “Thank you,” she said to the girl. “I will treasure it forever. Truly.” The girl’s mother smiled, and Liv noticed she had tears in her eyes. She blinked and looked away. Nothing more was said.

When they had touched down and were waiting to disembark the plane, Liv found the courage to turn on her phone. It buzzed immediately. She had known it would. Before she looked at the message she went through the motions of passport control and baggage reclaim. As she stood at belt six, there was a tap on her arm. It was the girl’s mother. The little girl was playing with a doll several feet away, lost in her fantasy. “I wanted to explain what happened on the plane,” the woman said. “It must have seemed strange.” Before Liv could reply, the woman spoke again. “You see, Becky lost her twin a year ago. In a car accident.”

Liv felt her lungs deflate. “I’m so sorry. How terrible for you both.”

Despite her brightly coloured and expertly applied makeup, the woman’s grief was obvious. But Liv sensed something else behind the sadness, maybe a spark of hope? “It’s been the hardest year of my life,” she said. “And for Becky, well, it’s hard to imagine how deeply this has affected her. She’s only five, and the two of them were thick as thieves.” She looked over at her daughter. “The thing is, that stone she gave you on the flight. It belonged to her sister.”

Liv pulled the stone out of her pocket. “Please, take it back. I would never have taken it if I’d known.”

The woman smiled. “But that’s the thing. She wanted you to have it. For a year she’s carried it around with her everywhere, desperate not to let it out of her sight. Her therapist said it was part of the grieving process, that she would let go of it when she had turned a corner. And now, well, now it seems she has. I just wanted you to know. Whatever you said or did on that plane, thank you.”

The woman called her daughter and they turned to leave. As they walked away Liv heard the woman ask why she had given the stone to the lady on the plane. The girl replied: “She needs it more than me Mummy. Turquoise is for strength, she has to be strong for her daughter.”

The arrivals hall began to spin. Liv steadied herself on her trolley. She put a hand to her tummy and stroked it. How had the girl known? She couldn’t have known. Remembering the message on her phone, Liv took it out and read it. It was from Mark, of course. Just seeing his name on the screen choked her up.

Seven words.

The best she had ever seen:

I KNOW. I LOVE YOU. COME HOME. X

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The Happy Place

Despite the wonderful Thanksgiving dinner that our friends hosted last night, I woke up this morning feeling sad. R only got back from five days away at 6.30pm last night, and left again today at midday for a work trip. Lately we’ve been like ships passing in the night, and the next couple of weeks promise to be just as tough. It’s hard sometimes living the crazy life we lead, but at least we both recognise the importance of staying emotionally connected as much as we can, despite the challenges. There is a lot going on and potentially some big changes afoot for us both – all very exciting, but transition always brings with it a certain trepidation.

So anyway, I woke up feeling sad and when R left felt even sadder. But instead of sitting around moping I gave myself a much-needed kick up the arse and went for a walk to my happy place, Tenbosch Park. There is one specific spot where I love to sit and listen to the birds tweeting and just breathe. In. Out. Until I feel calm again. It works every time.

Sometimes the world comes crowding in and it’s hard to get perspective, but there is always a way to get back to what matters, and, for me at least, it usually involves seeking out nature. Trees have a particularly calming effect on me, I think because so many of them have been there for so long, standing tall and strong. Nothing moves them, or riles them. I find them inspiring, and always think when I’m amongst them that I need to take a leaf (excuse the pun) out of their book and not let things get to me so much.

Life is crazy. The best way to deal with it is to accept it and enjoy the ride. Happy Sunday 🙂

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