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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Therapy Talk

At the beginning of 2015 I had a strange and unsettling episode that harked back to my days as a stressed out third year in university. It was a panic attack, full blown and frightening. Brought on, I think (it’s always hard to pinpoint), by a lack of direction in my life at the time. I had moved to Brussels with my boyfriend and was loving life in Belgium, but my nine month maternity cover job contract was coming to an end and I didn’t have anything else lined up. I was also conscious that my status as a girlfriend rather than a wife in this international setup was somewhat lacking in security. And so, after weeks of internalising my emotions, they built up and burst out of me in a tidal wave of fear. I hyperventilated myself silly, cried and panicked for the best part of an hour. Fortunately my then-boyfriend (now-husband – as it turned out I didn’t have to worry about that part) was on hand to offer words of support and encouragement. I calmed down. But I knew something inside me had awakened, and that I would need to find the courage to face it.

And so I did something I never thought I would actually do: I found a counsellor. And I went to my first session feeling embarrassed and stupid, like I was wasting her time and my own. And thinking surely counsellors are for people with real problems, not women whose biggest issues are which job to choose next and whether their boyfriends will decide to pop the question. But as I sat and talked, in the first session and the next, I realised this was about so much more.

We humans are like onions. When you start to peel away the layers you find layers you never knew existed. Each represents experience, and emotion. And until you have uncovered them all it’s hard to appreciate why you are the way you are, why you interact the way you do with others, with the world. And, most crucially of all, how you can adapt your behaviour to bring about positive and lasting change.

Almost eighteen months later I had my final session. It was tonight.

My counsellor asked me what three things I had learned from our sessions. I said, firstly, I’ve learned how to get some perspective. When I feel myself getting anxious, I now have the tools to dissociate myself from the stressor – even if just for a moment. I can then ask myself how big the problem is, really. If it will matter in three weeks, three months or three years. If it’s worth fighting or losing sleep over. And the answer, of course, is usually no. Secondly, I said I’ve learned some valuable coping mechanisms in response to specific situations. The best one was the victim-perpetrator-rescuer scenario, which I have used successfully to navigate occasional tricky patches in relationships. Finally, I’ve learned to be more empathetic towards others, to appreciate they have layers of their own (layers sometimes even they don’t know about). I have a propensity to be oversensitive, but now I have the capacity to realise that people don’t do things with the aim of upsetting me. It’s just the way they are, the way they have been conditioned. Just as my response to their behaviour is the way I have been conditioned.

It’s been a great experience.

I’ve learned a lot: About the person I was, the person I am and the person I want to be.

Now it’s time to take back the reins.

Anxiety-Looking-Glass

NLP Techniques to Achieve Positive Lasting Behavioural Change

Recently I attended a workshop in Brussels on how to incorporate New Code Neuro-Linguistic Programming techniques into daily life as a means of achieving positive and lasting behavioural change. It’s difficult to condense the content of that inspiring three hour session (hosted by fabulous trainers Lidija and Thomas from Momentum Strategies Coaching, who offer courses in London as well as Brussels and other locations worldwide) for the purpose of this blog post, but I’m going to have a go.

During the session, Lidija and Thomas explained that behaviour change is instigated by our unconscious mind rather than our conscious mind. When we want to change a behaviour we must therefore tap into our unconscious mind. This cannot be done, however, unless we are in the right state of mind to engage. For example, if we are feeling stressed, angry or sad, we are less likely to be able to communicate our wants and desires to our unconscious in a meaningful way.

The word ‘wants’ is key here, because the unconscious mind doesn’t recognise or process negatives e.g. I don’t want to keep behaving like this. Rather, it recognises positive affirmations e.g. I want to change this behaviour.

During the workshop we did a number of exercises to promote relaxation and to help us connect with our unconscious mind. One such exercise involved asking our unconscious to support us in making the positive behaviour change we most wanted. According to NLP theory, in making this connection between conscious and unconscious mind, the unconscious mind will begin to adapt our behaviour in ways that promote the desired behavioural change, without the conscious mind even being aware of it.

One example given to demonstrate this was that of a writer who wanted to finish a novel (bit close to home, this one). If the writer were to ask their subconscious every night to support them in achieving this goal, they might find that one day, on waking, they reach for their smartphone (as is their habit) and it drops onto the floor and underneath the bed. Whilst not necessarily the case, this could be an indication of the unconscious mind forcing a change in behaviour to break the negative behavioural cycle (i.e. checking smartphone before doing anything else, and getting sucked into social media etc.), and the writer might take this as a sign, leave the phone under the bed and get their laptop out instead, and begin to write.

I admit I was initially a little sceptical about this example, but then I tried it myself, and a couple of days later as I walked to work along the normal route I suddenly veered off and took a different route, with no input whatsoever from my conscious mind. And then, also unbidden by my conscious mind, my new novel idea popped into my head, and I spent the rest of the walk to work thinking about it. Granted, this could be coincidence, but I’m interested enough to find out more about this fascinating technique and learn how to use it to make positive lasting change in my life.

As a starting point of NLP it is important to clearly state our Intentions i.e. the things our conscious minds most desire. The following is my list:

  1. I WANT TO FINISH MY SCREENPLAY
  2. I WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL
  3. I WANT TO IMPROVE MY FRENCH
  4. I WANT TO BE A MOTHER
  5. I WANT TO BE A GOOD WIFE AND MOTHER
  6. I WANT TO BETTER UNDERSTAND OTHERS / THE HUMAN CONDITION
  7. I WANT TO HELP PEOPLE

What’s yours?

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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?

Reflections

Despite having a fairly solid eight hours’ sleep last night I woke this morning feeling like I’d been run over by a freight train. In part this was due to the intensity of the course I did over the weekend and the fact my brain needs time to process all that happened. Physiologically I suspect it also had rather a lot to do with the ridiculously high pollen count, which was referenced in this morning’s Metro newspaper. Either way I felt paralysed with exhaustion, and wasn’t mentally or physically able to drag myself out of bed until half past eight. With hindsight it would definitely have been wise to take a day to reflect on the Essentials before throwing myself back into work (today) and socialising (tonight), but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt this weekend it’s that there’s no point worrying about the past or the future. Things are just as they are, and just as they should be.

I remember some years ago attending a Buddhist retreat in rural Scotland (during the ‘Big Freeze’ of winter 2007, if I recall correctly, which made my mother sick with worry as I battled trains, planes and automobiles to get there. But I digress), after which I went to a restaurant in Glasgow with two of my fellow attendees. We had been warned by the leader of the retreat that ‘normal’ life might take a bit of getting used to after having so much quiet time, but none of us had prepared ourselves for just how strange it would feel. The easiest way I can think to describe it is that it was as if the volume and contrast settings had been turned right up, making everything too loud, too bright, too vibrant and vivid to process without feeling overwhelmed. I can’t deny I’m feeling a bit like that today, though on a lesser scale because I am at least blessed to be working for the charity that was borne from Psychosynthesis, which means my colleagues – many of whom have done the course themselves – are sensitive to how I’m feeling.

Daydreams of signing up for the foundation year course are still skipping merrily through my mind, but I’m determined to let the dust settle before committing to anything long-term. The planner in me is doing her damndest to take over, but for now I’m resisting her wily ways and doing my best to just be happy in the moment. And long may it continue…

Psychosynthesis Essentials: The Final Day

The final day of the Psychosynthesis Essentials course has now drawn to a close and I must admit I feel a bit bereft. Spending twelve hours a day with fourteen strangers on four consecutive days is an intense experience to say the least, particularly when you’re participating in experiential group work and observing one another in counselling sessions. In such an environment friendships that might otherwise have taken years to develop can form extremely quickly, which is exactly what I’ve found. And leaving the close knit group at the end of your time together and returning to the ‘real world’ can be quite an emotional wrench.

I could happily extol the virtues of this type of psychology for hours, but for tonight I’ll keep it brief and say only this: For the past eleven years I’ve been searching for a way to deepen my understanding of psychology and develop my connection with my inner self, and finally I feel I might just have found it.

Where I take things from here I don’t know – much as I’d love to do the foundation year in Psychosynthesis I’ve only just started working for the charity that was borne out of its principles, so I want to give it all my attention for the time being. Given that I’m now working part time I also don’t happen to have a few spare thousand pounds lying around, so maybe further down the line I’ll consider whether it would work to fit the course around work and how I might afford to pay for it. In the meantime I’m just happy to have had this opportunity. It’s been nothing short of phenomenal, and as cheesy as it sounds I’m certain I’m going to be a better person because of it.