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Perception is Everything

Striving for perfection

I am a perfectionist. I like to say I’m a recovering perfectionist. Or maybe an almost perfectionist – perfection is after all almost impossible to obtain. From the very moment my eyes open each morning I see the world with the eyes of someone striving for perfection.

Every single interaction I have, every choice or decision I make, and all the experiences I have are directly affected by how I perceive the world around me. As a perfectionist I perceive everything with a ridiculously critical eye. I am, almost always, harder and more critical of myself than anyone else. I zone in on tiny imperfections and fail to notice successes and achievements, or at least I notice them and quickly spot the things I could have done better until the achievement is in the shadow of my own perceived failures.

The standards I set for myself and, too often, for others are not always reasonable. I become anxious at the very thought of failing, and the extreme anxiety often leaves me stuck in a world of procrastination. I get stuck in circles of my own over-thinking. It goes something like this: I want to do this, I must do this perfectly, I can’t do this perfectly, I can’t do this, I won’t do this. Guess what? I don’t do it.

It happens when I’m learning lines for shows. I think: I want to learn these lines, I must learn them perfectly. I start trying and find I can’t learn them instantly (oddly…!). Thoughts continue: I can’t do this, I won’t do this. I stop learning lines. I put it off for a couple of weeks. I get stressed I’ve not learned my lines.

It’s not fun to be in this thought loop, it isn’t joyful or healthy to be ultra critical of myself in every single minute of my waking day. Yet it’s been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I didn’t have a clue how to even begin tackling this in the past. How can you change your behaviour when you’ve never known anything else?

Check your filters

The truth is you may well have behaved very differently before in your life. It’s highly likely at some point someone said something to me that went a bit like: “you’ve got to get it right” or “keep trying until it’s perfect”. And immediately what happened was I started to see the world through a filter, a perfection filter, like a visor on a motorbike helmet, only this filter slightly distorted the way I saw the world and interacted in it. Over time other filters popped up as well, like “don’t bother people” (ooh, ‘don’t bother people, do it all on your own’ filter) or “you’ve got to work hard” (hello, ‘working hard’ filter). Until suddenly my visor was, and is, so covered in filters I can’t see out of it clearly, and all I see and experience is affected by those filters.

Your story may not be exactly the same, and some version of this will have happened to you. You only see reality through your own filters, not necessarily how things really are in reality.

These filters of ours aren’t all bad. On the contrary, striving for perfection has enabled me to work hard, to achieve amazing things (I notice how my “I must be humble” filter doesn’t like me saying that out loud), and to throw everything into all I do. And yet, it causes anxiety, slows my progress, even resulting in total lack of action, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

You always have a choice

I have a choice, and you do too. I can choose whether to keep looking at the world through my filter of perfectionism. Or I can choose to start noticing where it shows up and what happens when it does. I can notice when it stops me in my tracks. And when I do, I can choose to do what I’ve always done or try something different. I can choose to test out whether there might be another reality I can’t see yet.

How do you try on another idea of reality? Sounds a bit sci-fi, right? If I notice my perfectionist filter is causing me to be super critical of something I’ve done, I’ll ask someone I trust for feedback. More often than not they will find positives I hadn’t even noticed, and I start to see that there is another version of reality I hadn’t seen before. Or I just get into action anyway – noticing the perfectionist filter is often enough to give me breathing space to take action, to move beyond it to a place where I can see maybe I had a distorted view.

Notice it, and take action

So today, if you find yourself putting something off, or thinking there’s no point in trying to change/do anything differently, start to notice what filters you might be looking through. Don’t try to take them off, just notice them, and ask yourself how can you test out whether there might be another version of reality. And take action.

Go well, and have fun.

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Stories from the Plateau

Learning doesn’t guarantee success. You can pour hours into attempting to learn something new and still never reach a pinnacle of success of a kind that our world’s media suggests is your right if you work hard. The truth is, putting in the hard graft is no guarantee that you’ll arrive at a positive result. And yet, there is one certainty about learning, if you don’t bother trying to learn anything, you won’t have any possibility of succeeding at all.

I’m right in the thick of learning lines for a musical theatre show with my wonderful community musical theatre group. We do it because it’s fun to hang out together and sing (often) great songs, and attempt a bit of acting and dancing. And did I mention we just like to mess about in each other’s company? If I have anything like an extended family, it’s these guys that are it. It’s fun (usually) and it’s hard work to achieve anything remotely close to a solid performance that people will actually enjoy experiencing when they rock up to watch the show. It’s not about the audience, and there’s nothing quite like the feeling that the audience have gone home with a spring in their step and smile on their faces – and that we’ve been the cause.

I know that on one level it doesn’t matter if I put hard work in or not. Something unexpected could happen on the night that means I won’t recall the lines, or I’ll stumble on a word and the line will come up all crumpled up. Or someone will leave their mobile phone on and the resulting ringtone will throw me off kilter. And I also know that if I don’t do the work of trying to learn the lines, I definitely won’t know them, and the lack of confidence that results means I end up anxious, stressed out and worried that I’ll let myself and everyone around me down.

What I know is doing the work to learn the lines means I won’t worry so much, and I’ll have more mental capacity to try new stuff out, to have fun and to really be there with my friends in the cast and crew in this moment and this moment and this moment.

I also know that I will go through inevitable peaks and troughs as I try to learn the lines, music and choreography. There will be highs when it goes well or in the early days when there is lots of time. There will be days of crushing bleakness when it’s going badly and I can’t remember a single thing I’ve been trying to get to stick. And there will be days on the plateau where it’s sort of ticking along – made some progress and not really seeing any evidence of further momentum or development. The days where I’ve been working on specific things and they just won’t stick. It’s tempting to find these times frustrating and give up. And yet, if I keep doing the work, showing up and learning especially when it seems nothing is happening, eventually I’ll hit a breakthrough. The plateau is where I learn most about me. About my impatience, where I fight my perfectionist demons and where I have to trust that it’s worth carrying on taking steps when there’s no obvious sign of growth, or change.

So when you’re learning remember that the plateau is always there. You will always reach it. And it isn’t an easy place to be. Surround yourself with people who love you, do fun things and keep going. The plateau is like a tree in winter. Reserves are building, new growth is about to breakthrough, spring is around the corner. Don’t give up.

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The right regrets

I’d like to say that one day I woke up and a resolution hit me with crystal clear clarity, and that was not how it happened. It’s the sort of thing that gets talked about, isn’t it? How the light shone through the window and it all suddenly made sense! Yeh, lovely and that’s just not how it happened for me. In fact I’m the sort of person who thinks too much about everything. So nothing is ever going to hit me in the face like that. It just isn’t. Even if it did I would question it and ponder it because that’s how I do things.

Over a very long period of time I very slowly came to the realisation that I would rather come to the end of my days risking regretting trying stuff and failing, than risking regretting never trying at all. It seemed the failure of all failures would be to come to the end of my time and know I hadn’t made the effort to make a life for myself that was mine, and not the life that the media in all it’s forms try so hard to portray as “the ideal”. I don’t like that life and I don’t want that life. I want a life based on deep connections, on making a difference, trying new things and having a load of fun along the way.

It sounds so simple, and yet it can feel very hard. It takes effort to go out into the world and take action, it takes courage to go out of your comfort zone and it takes time to get used to putting yourself out on the edge of that comfort zone and start stretching. Frankly it’s easier to do nothing and ride the wave that comes your way without ever choosing whether you want to ride it or not.

You see your comfort zone is a bit like a rubber band. It’s very comfortable being loose and hanging about. And there’s a point when you start pulling at an elastic band where tension arises. That’s the edge, if you like, of your comfort zone. If you pull too hard it stretches and becomes taut and shakes with the effort of being stretched too much big too soon, and if you let go when it’s at full stretch… ping! The band goes flying off, lands in a heap and quickly resumes its old shape. Comfort zone restored. If you pull just enough, you can change the shape without sending it off into the outer hemisphere. And that point, that’s where the magic happens.

On the edge of your comfort zone is where change begins. It’s where you can start, slowly, to stretch your understanding of what might be possible for you. Maybe today that’s just asking for an espresso instead of your usual Americana, or visiting a vegan restaurant in place of a steak house, or asking a friend what exactly it is that they do in their job, or asking to watch how someone grooms a dog. You have to start somewhere.

What’s the smallest thing you could do today that will push you ever so slightly out of your normal comfort zone? Who could you speak to? What activity could you do? Where could you go? Do something, anything. And have fun.

Direction

How what you complain about might be costing you – and what to do about it

It’s Friday night and you’re down the pub with your mates, or you’re hanging round the coffee machine with your co-workers, and you’re in moaning mode. I’ve been there, you’ve been there. Glass or mug in hand, putting the world to rights and letting everyone know why something isn’t as it should be.

Let’s face its a pretty common scenario. Movies and TV shows replicate reality and repeat this phenomenon over and over again. It’s a part of life. Letting out our frustrations and complaints is helpful on many levels, and arguably better for your mental health than holding it all in. I’m not going into the pros or cons of complaining in this article. I’m more interested in the fact that you’re complaining at all, and what it might mean for you.

Your world is not the same as my world

A complaint is, according to the dictionary, a statement that something is unsatisfactory or unacceptable. I’m going to add in a bit to this. A complaint is “a statement that something is unsatisfactory or unacceptable…according to you and your view of how the world should be.”

What’s unacceptable to you may be totally acceptable and reasonable to the person listening to you. Of course they won’t often admit that, and yet there it is. Your interpretation is not the only interpretation that exist. Remember that example of the dress that pops up all over social media from time-to-time? Do you see a black and blue dress or white and gold dress? It’s crystal clear to you that what you see is exactly what everyone else sees too. The idea that other people might be telling the truth when they say that they see a dress in a totally different colour seems bizarre at best, even wrong.

I reckon you don’t even notice how your complaints and your way of thinking about your situation and the world around you keep you stuck. I’ll go further and bet that those complaints you make give you a kind of payoff that means you keep reinforcing the same cycle of behaviour. Over and over, again and again the same pattern repeats itself. You moan about the same old stuff day in and day out. It might be connected to different situations or people and it’s the same creature with a different mask. Your payoff might be feelings of safety, or certainty or something very different. It doesn’t really matter what your payoff is, it’s real to you and it keeps you treading endlessly on the same wheel.

But what’s the cost?

Not recognising the pattern you repeat in how you behave, and what you complain about, costs you deeply through the loss of your vitality and energy, loss of open and honest connection with other people, loss of fulfilment or achievement, and the loss of being able to stand-up and express yourself as the person you really are when all the rubbish is stripped away.

In contrast, if you notice your patterns of behaviour, you can choose to interrupt the cycle. You can do something differently. Like not blame your bad mood on the traffic, and instead know that you’re very tired and need to get some sleep. Or rather than moaning about how your boss treated you, ask yourself (or your boss) what you could do differently next time that might make everyone’s life easier. Or decide not to moan about why your school failed you and thats why you’re in a job you hate, and instead start doing something about it.

The more you interrupt the cycle, the easier it will be to do it next time. Rather like pushing the pedals on a bike, the first few pushes from standing still are tough and it takes a lot of effort and focus to get moving, then when you’re off you build momentum and before you know it you’ve travelled a long way and arrived at a very different place.

Start noticing

What do you keep on complaining about, and what is it costing you? It’s not an easy task to unpack the cost of your old habits and behaviours, and it’s all the more valuable when you’re brave enough to show-up and notice it. Where else does that behaviour show up in your life? Give yourself permission to notice when and where it pops up.

When you do, you’ll know what it’s costing you, and knowledge is powerful. Once you know the cost, you can make a choice. You can choose to leave things as they are, in full knowledge of the cost – and that might be absolutely OK for you and where you are right now. It doesn’t have to be that way forever.

Or you can choose to interrupt the pattern, to make new choices and do something different when you notice the pattern repeating. Don’t make it a make or break moment. Habits are hard to kick, and if you jump onto your bike expecting to be able to conquer the race and change instantly you’ll have a hard fall. Be kind to yourself, and do it little tiny pushes at a time. Even kids don’t learn to pedal a bike on the first try. They try and fall, and get back on and fall again, and try again. And they celebrate when they hit tiny milestones, and you can too. Then one day they realise they are finally doing it all by themselves, and they are no longer stuck.

Get a partner

A supportive accountability partner or a coach can be an immense help in encouraging you to identify patterns of behaviour, and in taking action to break the patterns and create a new path through keeping you accountable to making change, and asking those big, challenging questions to break you out of your old mindsets.

Commit and pedal forwards

Once you’ve noticed your patterns and committed yourself to making a change, get on your bike and slowly start pedalling. Who knows what might happen when you do, and you’ll have one amazingly fascinating ride.

Direction

Where do you want to get to?

mountains nature arrow guide
Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels.com
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to walk from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where-” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you walk,” said the Cat.
“So long as I get somewhere,” Alice added, as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll)

Where do you want to get to?

Some people have a clear sense of direction for their lives from a very young age.  These are the people who have strong sense of desire for their careers, for example to become a doctor, a lawyer, an overseas charity worker, a teacher or a writer.  Others will be clear they want to be parents, or want to pursue fun activities in their leisure time, e.g. playing in local sports leagues, performing in amateur theatre, painting, photography, etc.  These fortunate folk grow up knowing exactly what they want to do, or who they want to be, and put in huge amounts of effort and energy to make sure they get where they want to go.

You might be incredibly clear about where you want to go in one aspect of your life.  You spot all the right signposts to move you forward and take the steps you need to take to reach your destination. Suddenly you realise you haven’t arrived at the place you thought you would when you started out, and you’ve lost sight of things that were once precious to you.  It might be a tiny thing that stops you in your tracks and forces you to look up, or you might be so focused on your end-game that it takes a major incident, like a health-scare, or the threat of divorce or redundancy, to kick you out of orbit. It turns out you hadn’t noticed there were multiple routes you could have chosen. If only you had taken time out to reflect on where you were heading both before you started and at each decision-making signpost along the way.

You might have absolutely no idea where you’re going or what you’re doing.  You’ve just fallen into everything you’re doing for work and leisure, and you’ve not really made active decisions to end up where you are now.

And you might also be somewhere in the middle of the extremes.  Few of us have a “grand plan”.  And that’s also absolutely OK.  I’m not here to tell you you need one.  I’m here to help you check whether the way you’re going is the way you have chosen to go.

Taking time to reflect on the direction you are heading in life, and the choices you are making, is not only a nice thing to do if you have time, but essential if you want to live big, fulfilling, contented lives.  There are endless possibilities – doesn’t it make sense to take a little time out to reflect on where you might end up before you get there? All great mountaineers plan their routes before they leave base-camp, making sure they have what they need and are clear on where they want to go – not just to the summit but the route they want to take to get there, places to stop along the way, and who is going with them.  Life is the biggest journey you are ever going to take – why not do the same?

ACTION TIME!

Here are a couple of places you can start if you want to do a little mountaineer planning in your own life.  Get really comfortable – this can feel weird to start with so make sure you’re somewhere comfy and free from distractions, get nice and warm (put on extra socks if you have a tendency to get cold feet), put on some great music that enables you to concentrate, then relax and breathe.  Good.

In 5 years time

Ask yourself, “where will I be in 5 years time if I keep heading in this direction?”  It’s a big one, isn’t it?  Explore where you might be in all areas in your life: relationships with your significant other, family and friends; careers and work; fun and leisure; home; spiritual life; health; personal growth etc. Write down your thoughts, then come back to them another day and look at the answers again.  Keep your mind open and no second-guessing yourself!  If you start judging your answers, notice that, and jot the thoughts down anyway.  Maybe you’ll be exactly where you are now, just five-years older.  How do your responses make you feel?  Happy?  Uncomfortable?  What is it that makes you feel that way?

Little caveat for crystal-ball gazing – I know that curve balls come from all directions and there could be a million reasons why something could change and would lead to a totally different result.  There are no right or wrong answers, just your own thoughts and ideas – none of them are set in stone.

Slice of pizza

Another way of starting to look at where you’re going is to stay firmly “right here, right now”.  Draw yourself a nice big circle. Split it up into segments, like slices of pizza, and add titles to each slice: Significant Other (add their name if you want to); Family; Friends; Careers and Work; Fun and Leisure; Home; Spiritual Life; Health; Personal Growth – and any others you feel are an important part of your life or you would like to be, e.g. some people like to include finances.  Once you have your segments take a little time to rate each one on a satisfaction scale of 1-10 where 1 is thoroughly dissatisfied and 10 is out of this world amazing and loving it. You may be surprised how quickly you can do this on gut feel alone.  Be honest. Don’t second-guess yourself or spend too long deliberating on whether to give a slice this or that rating – there are no wrong answers here either. When you’re done take a look and you’ll start to see the areas you’ve been focusing on the most.  Maybe you’ve given your health and fitness a whopping great 10 (maybe a 9, if you’re being a shy Brit) and you notice that you’ve only scored your family at 5.  Or your career has taken all your energy and you’re doing great in it but you’ve noticed that you’ve only given fun and leisure a 3.  Whatever you notice is OK – it’s not an excuse to mentally beat yourself up.  Noticing where you are now will help you make changes, if you want to and you feel its right for you. And, by all means, pray about what you’ve discovered if that feels like the way forward for you.

Whether you look forward, do the pizza challenge or a bit of both, I want to caution you (again – I really mean it) not to judge yourself for whatever shows up. You might be taking care of small children or elderly relatives and your own health or leisure time have been affected, or you might be ill yourself, or you’ve just moved house so “home” is taking up extra time.  There are an endless combination of reasons of why you are where you are now and why you are heading in a certain direction, and that’s OK.  This is not about regretting the past or blaming anyone (you or anyone else) for where you are today.  These are exercises to help you work out what direction you want to head in now.

Whatever you think might be your destination in 5 years time based on where you are now, gently ask yourself: “how do I feel about my life?  Is that what I want?”  If it isn’t, ask yourself what would need to change.  If you look at your completed pizza and you decide you want to shift direction – ask yourself this: what would it look like to hit a 10 in the areas you want to change most?  Don’t ask if it’s possible, just imagine what it would be like. What’s the smallest thing you could do differently today to take your first steps in the direction you do want to head?  What’s a tiny step towards getting a 10?

Which way should you walk?  It all “depends a good deal on where you want to get to”.

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Sticky labels

“The thing is, I’ve made a bit of a mess of things.  I don’t normally talk about it ‘cos it’s embarrassing.  I’m an idiot.  I don’t have any options now.  What else could I do anyway, I’d just make another mess.”

The problem with being human is we make mistakes, and then we let our own thoughts lead us to believe the mistakes we make define us as people.  Our brains are clever things and those stories we tell ourselves stick.  We stick a big “idiot”, or “useless” or “not good enough” label to ourselves then we look for evidence we are right and, because we are searching carefully, we find it.  “Oh, look!  I knocked the milk over.  What an idiot!”, or “I didn’t finish that piece of work on time – I knew I wasn’t good enough to do this job”.

Oh boy, that evidence is sticky.  Ever tried using super glue?  It’s strong stuff.  There’s a reason there’s a warning on the packet.  Pretty soon we are covered in big sticky labels.  It’s tricky to move around with all those labels stuck everywhere.  The evidence you’ve got says, “yes, you are an idiot.”  That’s one way of looking at it.  “You are an idiot, you’re not good enough, you’re useless, you’re never going to get out of there.  You’re never going to enjoy your work.   You’re always going to make a mess of everything you do so you may as well not try at all.”  Those are all ways of looking at where you are right now. It doesn’t mean they are true, it doesn’t mean that is the only way of looking at it, but that’s how your brain has interpreted the world.  The great news is there are always other ways you could choose to look at you and your situation.

Choice. Funny little word. We often forget we have a choice.  But we do.  We always have a choice.  It sounds glib.  Many people face situations that are far from ideal, if not downright horrific and, even in those dark places in life, we have a choice in how we respond.  Stories abound of prisoners in the horrendous World War Two concentration camps who chose not to be robbed of their internal selves and freedoms.  Prisoners who gave up their meager rations to help another, or chose to take a stand.

How can we choose another way if all we can see is what’s written on our sticky labels? Let’s try finding another way of looking at ourselves and our situation first. What if your best friend shared with you what they think?  Maybe it would go something like this: “Yeh, you had a really bad experience and you made some rubbish decisions, but look at you!  You’re really good at X, Y and Z and you always make us laugh.  You’re always here for your mates.  Loyal, that’s you – and isn’t that why you made the decisions you did, you were just being loyal.  That’s great!”   Hmm, that could be an interesting way of thinking about it.  Not an idiot or not good enough – loyal and funny, and a very good friend.

What about your old teacher from junior school?  Perhaps they would say: “You were always kind when another child hurt themselves, and would help them out in class if others were struggling”.  Not an idiot or useless – kind and caring.

Let’s try another.  What can that bright red, shiny, very fast sports car you dream of have to say about it all?  Yep, sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  Go with me here… You dream of driving it too fast on a race-track because you like the rush of speed – it feels good to have control.  You put music on and sing loudly because you love it.  Not an idiot, not useless – in control and musical.

Do you see the power of looking at things in another way? Suddenly you’ve gone from being an idiot, useless or not good enough to being loyal, funny, kind, caring, in control and musical. Now you have a choice.  You can stay stuck and keep believing the old labels, or you can choose a new one.  Maybe all the new ones.  “I’m an idiot” becomes “I’m loyal and caring”.  It’s not easy.  Our minds keep pulling us back to our old ways of thinking, over and over again – it’s a safety net and it’s a challenge to break free. And each time we choose to believe the new label and respond differently we climb a little further out of the net into freedom.  It might just let enough light in that we remember our situation isn’t quite as hopeless as we thought and maybe, just maybe, we can take a little step forward.

ACTION TIME!

What are two different ways of looking at yourself, or your situation, today that mean something for you?

Use the prompts in the post above, or look around you for ideas (e.g. how would your grandparents see this, what would your boss see, how would your situation change when you look at a pair of bright red shoes/driving a tank/dressed as a cartoon character).

Pick one, and choose to believe it today.  Choose it especially if it makes you feel uncomfortable or silly. Write it down where you’ll see it again and again.  Use your phone to send you prompts.  What’s different?

Share it below!

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Keep it small

There is only one thing that stops you making a significant change in your life.  You.  There is nowhere else to lay blame or fault.  If you aren’t living the life you want, do something about it.  Don’t do nothing.  That is the absolute worst thing you could do.  A fat old nothing.  I know, I’ve been there.

It’s totally possible to sit around feeling sorry for yourself, going over and over all the “what ifs” and stay firmly stuck in what a wise friend once called the crazy-thought loop.  You can turn to chocolate, wine or a good TV series.  And the next day will roll around and there you will be, in exactly the same place as the day before.

Or… or you can tell yourself that enough is enough and you can do something about it.  You can take action.  Action is exciting, terrifying and hopeful.  It can be a huge death-defying leap or it can be a tiny step like the tentative first step of a baby starting its journey as a toddler.  Action is beautiful because action leads to more action, just as one step leads to another, and another and another.  And before you know it you’re not in the same place, you’ve changed direction and you’re on your way.  You may not know the destination yet, and that’s OK.  Sometimes the destination won’t make itself clear until we’ve started out.  And we need to start.

Too often we stop ourselves from taking action because we make it too big.  We make it about the huge leap and not the baby step.  So my advice to you is to keep it small. Find one thing that you want to do differently today, just one thing.  Maybe you’ll take a different route to your workplace, or drink a different kind of coffee, listen to a new artist, make a call you’ve been putting off.  What it is doesn’t matter as much as doing it.  Whatever change you want to make, start somewhere.  Keep it small.  Baby steps.  You’ve got this.