No small amount of courage

I recently sent an email of thanks to my old therapist. She herself isn’t actually old, but you know what I mean.

I value her so highly and together, we worked through an enormous amount of change over six years of sharing her office. They were gruelling sessions and sometimes the toughest times of my life. Being able to go inwards and work on myself was a great privilege for me and a gift I will never forget.

She reminded me that the work we do on ourselves requires commitment and no small amount of courage. Let’s be honest – it’s a MASSIVE amount of courage we need – I think she understated that! Not just courage in showing up every week when at times it felt like I had nothing to talk about, but courage going to the dark places of shame and discomfort that have allowed me to move on and improve my life, my experiences and my world view.

I chose psycho-dynamic psychotherapy when I realised that not all of my relationships were going well. And I knew it was time to look inwards, to stop blaming other people and start looking at what I was doing that might not have been helping that.

We talked about over 50 years of learned behaviours, experiences, fears and aspirations and some of those days were golden moments and some of those days I would come home and cry on the couch for hours, remembering some of the things that made me who I am.

I wouldn’t trade any of them. In her words, she saw someone in our first meeting who had potential. Potential for change. Manifesting this potential as we well know, takes endurance to accept that there are parts of ourselves that need changing.  The most difficult part, is making sense of how we came to be this person, being able to bear those painful realisations and in turn allowing the person we want to be to emerge, the truer version of our self.

The most difficult part, is making sense of how we came to be this person, being able to bear those painful realisations and in turn allowing the person we want to be to emerge, the truer version of our self.

It took me a long time in therapy to unravel my true self. It felt like a returning to something familiar. I think we are all born with kindness and compassion in our hearts – and things happen along the way to us that make us protect ourselves, or change who we really are. It took me a while to uncover the real, strong, flowing source of kindness and compassion I have now. And I am still – and will continue to be, a work in progress. I am now fortunate to use my skills to help others be kind to themselves. To let ourselves off the hook – to stop beating up on ourselves. That stuff gets really boring after a while.

The coaching work I do is based on self-kindness and self-compassion. It’s not therapy – it is most definitely coaching. Kindness and compassion are tools we can all use in whatever version of self improvement we choose. It won’t end well if we continue to beat ourselves up as a way of motivating ourselves towards achieving our goals.

We are attracted to kindness and compassion in others – there’s no reason why we can’t start with ourselves. When we know ourselves well enough – we can start to understand our own behaviour. We can make sense of our own reactions and our own responses not just to ourselves but to others. It’s a critical skill when leading a team – or being in any position of leadership that we first know ourselves in a way that makes us confident, consistent and caring. There is a real place for this kind of leadership. It achieves so much more than a command and control mindset – but it does take courage. This Emily McDowell image sums all of that up – our true selves are always there. We are powerful, creative, resourceful and whole exactly the way we are. We might just need a helping hand in unravelling.

This is what I mean by being kind and compassionate to ourselves.

The 10th anniversary of cycling up some big mountains in France has made me think about resilience

The lake @ the top of Alpe d'Huez

This is when the mourning starts. The Tour de France is over for another year and I can’t watch it for hours at a time, reminiscing about when I rode up some of those mountains myself.

It’s 10 years since that ride and also 10 years since I gave up alcohol – and I still can’t quite believe that I actually did it. The ride I mean – giving up booze was the easy part.

I was asked to join a friend and then she had to bail because of a knee injury. Something in me did not want to bail when I had the chance. Mentally, I had already committed to it you see – there was no backing out.

It was a total of 320km over 3 days, , and included 6 pretty tough mountains to get over. I wrote a bit about why I was doing it back then and why I was driven to achieve such an incredible goal. Of course, the more time I spend looking back on it, the more incredible it actually was. To be fair, it was without doubt the hardest thing I ever did.

I learned a bit about myself doing that ride. When you are cycling up 25km of mountain road with altitudes of up to 2600m – some 1st, 2nd and HC climbs (for the non-cyclists amongst us – HC stands for Hors Categorie – Beyond Categorisation! – They big ones!) you have a lot of time to focus on mental strength.

I told myself that getting off my bike wasn’t an option. I did get off once – just to see if it would be better and easier. Getting off on a steep gradient of 11% is NOT easier. Take it from me. How I kept going I will still never really know. At times it was reading messages of support that would occasionally pop into my phone. It was thinking of the money people spent sponsoring me, it was thinking of my best mate’s mum dying of cancer, regardless of how many kilometres I cycled. Basically it was thinking about anything other than giving up.

It was also about not caring. I genuinely didn’t care that other people were passing me. I didn’t care that one man at 75 years of age passed me on one of my worst days. I wished him “bonne journée” and stayed focused on my own challenge. It didn’t matter to me what was going on around me. I was in a group of 34 other cyclists and some of them were absolute champions. Some of them ascended Alpe d’Huez in just over 20 minutes. I lost count of how long it took me.

The lake at the top of Alpe d’Huez

The things that brought me extreme joy on those incredibly tough days were things like seeing Mont Blanc from the descent of the Col des Saisies en route to the Col des Aravis. The massive and rewarding descent off of the Col de Madeleine after a bloody tough ascent; sheep on the road that we had to navigate around, the sense of camaraderie between everyone on that ride, being helped up Alpe d’Huez by a bunch of other riders – all doing it together when I am fairly sure they could have done it faster without me dragging them behind, the friendships I have made, and the absolute sheer exhilarating experience of it. I look back now and am so proud of my achievements. It was worth all of that self-talk to take this experience away as mine.

As well as the joys – there were some utterly awful experiences too: I usually came in last on most stages – one day having spent 11 hours on the bike because I got lost going into the evening’s hotel; the cold, the rubbish food (as a coeliac) and gels, the frozen hands, the wet cycling kit…the list goes on. Then to top it all off, getting news about Rose dying as I was cycling up Alpe d’Huez. I stopped briefly for a cry then got back on my bike and kept going.

I had never thought of myself as resilient until then. Much like the Inner Critic, there is a voice in my head which tells me to keep going. I had plenty of opportunity to listen to the Inner Critic – because, make no mistake – it was having a field day about how rubbish I was, how unfit I was, how old I was… and yet – during this time I chose to listen to the one that told me it was only another 23km to go or, it was only 4 more hours on the bike, or I’m 44 and apart from the 75 year old man, I was kinda up there in age! I told myself out of the 34 people on that ride, only 3 of us were women – and that also helped. Those women were at least 20 years younger than me, and whilst I couldn’t quite keep up with them, I was still a girl – doing it for the girls!

Resilience is about how quickly we can recover to be able to front up again and again. On an endurance ride like that one, I had to give myself small goals to enable me to achieve the big ones. I had to countdown, I had to envisage getting to the end of that monumental climb having achieved that incredible feat. When I fast-forwarded that image into my head, I felt able to cope.

Sometimes we need a REALLY good reason to achieve our goals and sometimes we just need to know that “This too shall pass” and that the discomfort or pain or hurt, anger, whatever – will soon be ended. We will not only be back to our prior state, but we might just be richer for it.

It certainly holds some weight when I’m watching Le Tour!

Resilience is another way we can be kind and compassionate to ourselves.