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Superwoman, I am not

Busy, oh so busy

My life is always busy. I’m busy working, connecting, cleaning up, tidying up, learning, socialising, playing, creating, washing clothes, travelling, reading, organising, parenting (or being parented), buying food, cooking food, writing, and listening. There is always something or, more often, someone calling for my attention.

When I give and give and give without taking time out to rejuvenate, I crack. Every single time. You’d think I would learn, wouldn’t you? And I do, and I don’t.

Who says I’m not superwoman?

It’s easy to say I need space. I’m not very good at accepting I need it, and much worse at doing something about it. I’m supposed to be superwoman, aren’t I? The kind of gal who just gets on with it all, taking it all in my stride on my own day after day. I can do it all, be it all and own it all. Alone.

Do you know what? That’s total rubbish. I can’t push on through everything without the strain of the effort showing through. I can’t do it all alone. I’m not even meant to do life alone. The need for connection and belonging is hard wired into our souls. The cracks show up as extreme lack of patience, frustrated and exhausted tears, increasingly negative self-talk, physical exhaustion and a worryingly downward spiral of lack of self-esteem. Too many times I’ve ended up in a heap on the kitchen floor with nothing left to give.

I do at least now recognise the signs of impending doom. I no longer have to wait for Armageddon to be unleashed before listening to what my body and mind are already telling me (not always, but I’m getting better at noticing Armageddon’s approach). Now I often succeed at giving myself a small measure of compassion. I call time before someone else calls it for me. Usually.

Run away

And so it was I found myself at a lovely little beachside cafe yesterday afternoon. The cracks had been widening all through my short week, and escape was my only way out. Running away to the circus actually felt like a realistic option for a few fleeting moments. Oh, what a difference a couple of hours made: alone in the sun, with a cup of tea (herbal, don’t judge me) and the calming blue sea! It didn’t completely plaster over the cracks but the gaps sure weren’t as wide as before I listened and took the action I needed most: to stop.

Listen and answer the call

Little pleasures are often all you need to calm and soothe your soul. It doesn’t have to be big and grand. Simple and quick can be beautifully effective at restoring and rejuvenating you, even if you have to do the same thing again tomorrow or the next day. One day at a time.

What do you need most today? Will you listen?

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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.