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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.

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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.