A few weeks back, in the interval at an event where I was speaking, I bumped into a woman I knew.
She’d been a student on The Insta Retreat so this was our first time meeting in real life, and we did that strange thing where you slide straight from ‘hello, my name is…’ into the more interesting, juicier conversation of close acquaintances. We chatted about my podcast, which she listens to, and somewhere in there I mentioned that I was undertaking my second round of coaching with a Self Belief specialist.
Entrepreneur was surprised. She had always thought that I seemed successful and sorted, she said, so she didn’t think I would need help from someone like that. I was, I confess, partially elated to have successfully fooled anyone into thinking I am ‘sorted’, but I was also intrigued.
However much we know and accept that self doubt is normal and universal, we still tend to feel like we’re alone in it. No matter how well we theoretically appreciate that it isn’t actually tied to our achievements, we still hope we might one day out-run it by becoming successful enough, or scoring sufficient ‘validation points’.
Well, if that’s possible, I haven’t reached it yet. I have, however, come on leaps and bounds in my self belief through 1:1 coaching, and so this all seemed like a good nudge to talk about that. Both as a counter-balance to any notion of ‘sorted people don’t need help’, and also just because I genuinely find our cognitive distortions and the crazy tales we come to believe to be incredibly interesting!
Ten things I learned about myself & self belief
1. Empathy is my superpower. My coach described it to me as the gift some of us get for growing up in a home where you’re never sure you’re safe. I’ve always been adept at reading the clues in any given situation; able to tell from another person’s word choice all the things they weren’t saying, able to know from a parents’ footfalls whether all Hell was about to break loose. As an adult in a safe and stable environment, this becomes a brilliant skill: I can read a room and sense the mood of a dozen people almost instantly. I know when I’m being lied to or played from the tiniest tell. I can hear someone describe an issue with their business and gently tease out the real difficulties. But I can also, if I’m not careful, take full responsibility for all those emotions, and expend all of my energy trying to make sure everyone else is ok, and wind up exhausted. Which leads me to…
2. I’m not responsible for everyone else’s happiness. I mean, obviously I’m not – who would ever even think that?! – but this one’s a sneaky little mindset that hides in the dark corners of my mind. When I only have time for a two-word email response, but I’m worried they’ll think it was curt. When someone asks for a favour that I have to refuse. When I’m giving a talk to a room full of strangers, and their faces are flat, or ‘neutrally angry’ (I refuse to use the term ‘resting bitch face’) as they look up at me. Why aren’t they smiling? Are they disappointed? Is this not what they expected? How can I change what I’m saying and doing to make them approve?? Oh hello point number 2.
3. I can’t control other people or outside events. I can only control how I react to these things. So simple and obvious, but the lie is so seductive. If I just do x and y, so-and-so will like me more. If I just say the perfect thing to the perfect person at the perfect moment, everything will magically unfold for me. Or even just, how do I make this stop? It’s incredibly human to imagine we have more power over the things around us. I’m reminded of a Tim Minchin quote where he talks about telling a friend he hopes their plane crashes before a flight. Shocking and terrible, but as he rightly points out – this makes absolutely no difference to the probability that it will. Yet it really feels like it could do, right? Just like it feels like we can change how someone is treating us, just by doing enough of the right things in the right order. Sadly, it’s all a lie. Take it from someone who has an empathic-superpower manipulation skill level: it just isn’t possible. What is in our control, however, is how we feel and respond to all of these situations – and this, it turns out, is way better than trying to control the whole world anyway! Getting to choose to opt-out of a downward spiral or someone else’s drama is the most wonderfully liberating thing. It’s not easy, and I’m still learning, but those moments when I get to say ‘ok, you do that, I’m just going to keep doing my thing’ are glorious, and make me feel like a legit Jedi master at living my life.
4. Boundaries are an actual thing. After this particular revelation I confessed to my coach that I’d previously dismissed the idea – it sounded a lot like 90s American self-help garbage to my judgemental and sometimes-dismissive brain. But no! As it turns out, boundaries are actually pretty much the answer to living a happy, contented life in a world that is often pretty shitty, dramatic and full of messed up people doing messed up stuff in your space. Boundaries are the lines we get to draw that say, nope, sorry, I can’t allow that, or you, to be a part of my life. They are the living embodiment of this meme. (I love that meme. I go back to it regularly to remind myself of my boundary goals 😂) They are kind of a big deal. Who knew?
5. As you work through your issues & gain insight, the people in your life avoiding doing that work for themselves will disappear. This is actually quite depressing – I’m very much someone who like to keep every person I connect with close to my heart for the rest of our lives – but it’s inevitable, and healthy, in the end. Seeing you work through your self doubt, change your life and find success in the areas that truly fulfil you will be alienating to some people in your life – for reasons that really have very little to do with you. Maybe they’re unhappy about some similar things, and your success is triggering for them. Maybe they disapprove or don’t respect the directions you’ll choose to go in, and your interests will become incompatible. Maybe you’ll just change so much that you no longer have quite as much in common, and you’ll drift apart. It sucks, but there’s an important thing I’ve found: the best people, the people who truly love you for YOU, and not for what you are or how your life makes them feel about their own? They’ll stay. It’s sort of like an ‘averageness’ filter for your friendships & family group. Only the exceptional remain.
6. Sometimes you just need some outside help. I like to think I’m pretty insightful – it gets commented on a lot, in fact – and my husband calls me “the most sane person he knows”. I’ve generally got myself fairly well worked out and am usually pretty adept at being the first to catch and call myself on whatever psychological bullshit I might be tangling myself in, and I’m even better at doing it for other people in my life. It’s what makes me able to see into the heart of people’s businesses or creative block – it’s that empathy superpower just wearing a different cape. Therefore it actually stands to reason that sometimes, another outside person can do a better job at seeing the big picture of my own problems; especially, of course, when that person is a trained coach with years of experience of helping women in similar situations. Sometimes we can reach a point where we’ve done all the thinking on a problem that we can do by ourselves, and we need fresh insight and information to move further along. It’s a luxury, absolutely, to be able to pay for that help – but it’s important to get it somehow, whether it’s professional or not. Find friends who get you, and talk talk talk.
7. It’s so often about what WE feel, and not what other people actually say/think/do – & there’s all kinds of power in that. This works both ways, I find. Majorly enraged or upset about what someone else is doing on social media? That’s probably about me and my issues more than it is about them – especially if I seem to be the only one worked up. We all have our own unique triggers, and what can be a throwaway post or comment to one person can open a whole can of worms for the next. The good news is, this applies to when people are commenting on our own stuff, too. One random person has taken huge objection to something you’ve shared? Fear not – it’s almost definitely about them. In fact, never is this more apparent than when someone leaves some bitchy or vitriolic comment in response to someone else’s work or behaviour. I often think if people realised just how much they were giving away about their deepest insecurities through these online passy-assy rants, they’d never let a word of it into the world. If you want to test this out just scan through the posts from the most active and vitriolic members of hate sites devoted to bloggers or vloggers. Pretty soon it becomes apparent that these posters are obsessed, seriously unhappy and almost always a failed or aspiring blogger themselves. Happy, sorted people aren’t spending their free time tearing other people dow on the internet. They’re too busy being happy and sorted.
8. All the best people are weird. It’s been a recurring theme in my life that I’ve felt different and separate from the wider masses – and I haven’t always been comfortable with that. There’s something very very seductive in the idea blending in and being safely part of the herd – we’re all hardwired to crave community and connection, after all. In conversation with my coach I somehow coined the term ‘loft converters’ – the folks whose primary ambition in life is to buy a house in the suburbs, wash the car every Sunday and save towards a loft conversion. I mean, I’m sure that’s a perfectly fun way to spend a life, but it’s not me, and it’s not any of the people I adore or admire. Tori Amos, Carrie Fisher, Maya Angelou, Ani Difranco, Sylvia Plath. All of my very favourite friends. None of them seem to be doing the loft-converter thing, and they’re all invited to the fictional dinner party in my head. I guess what I’ve learned is that yep, I am a bit weird, or kooky or different – but that I should celebrate that. If I was like the people whose approval I’ve been craving, I’d be bored out of my mind, and a whole lot less entertaining after a glass and a half of wine. And I probably wouldn’t have this business, or this happiness, or this blog!
9. The human mind is a ridiculous and very entertaining thing. Mine seems to be especially comical. Even as I’m confessing to my fears or problems, even as crying over them, at times, I’m also laughing. We laugh a lot in coaching sessions. My coach records all the calls (in strict confidentiality, of course), and I sometimes think that she could cut them up into the most hilarious comedy sketch for Radio 4. Some of my concerns take ‘first world problems’ to a whole new level (“Luke Skywalker’s daughter won’t let him to talk to me on Twitter any more!”), but of course, they’re really all just symptoms of a bigger, messier picture, and unpacking the details can often help lead to a much broader conclusion (e.g. your specialness is not determined by any outside source. Even Jedi.) Laughing at the lies your brain tells you is wonderfully liberating, and takes a lot of the power out of them. It’s a way of accepting the flaws and ridiculousness of being human, and having fun along the way.
10. My life is like Kintsukuroi – the broken bits make it more beautiful & give it more story to tell. And that’s actually hugely reflected in all the things I love – in my interiors, in my wardrobe, in my writing, my photography. I like imperfection, I like that things age and evolve to tell you about their life along the way. I love ruins – tumbled down, humble buildings that have all of their flaws on display and are infinitely more magical and beautiful because of it. My very favourite people are those who have been to therapy and come out the other side, because they’re always so much richer, deeper and better to know. I extend this wonder and appreciation to everything and everyone around me – but not so much myself. For me, I expect some impossible perfection, and letting go of that and letting the golden fault lines show is my biggest work in progress. I’ve learned, time and again, that true to its alchemy, this is where we really get to shine.
(11. I really need to buy some Kintsukuroi ceramics)
photography by James Melia