A tree is never done becoming a tree…

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… no matter how old, the tree keeps growing new twigs and branches. It never stops to say ‘I’m done growing now, I think I’ll stay the way I am’.

This thought occurred to me while doing a mindfulness walk through a park last year. I also noticed that each tree had lost some branches and had “scars” galore, but that didn’t stop it from sprouting new ones. It didn’t say ‘I’ve been hurt, I don’t want to try growing this new branch, since I’ll probably just get hurt again’.

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Over 8 weeks last autumn I’ve had the great pleasure to partake in a Self-Compassion Mindfulness course, based on the work that Dr. Kristin Neff  has done. During the course I went through good times and bad, but the first thing I learned was a tiny exercise in self-compassion which has had a lasting impact on me.

Here’s what you do:

In a moment of stress, frustration, grief or anxiety you just stop, put your left hand on your heart, put your right hand on top of your left to caress it lightly and you say out loud to yourself:

“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself.”

And that’s it!

It might seem too easy, it might seem a little crazy, but it helped me a lot. Because what this tiny gesture and mantra does is stopping your thoughts from spiralling downwards.

Too often when something happens we start blaming ourselves or feel bad about the way we react. Here are two examples I have noticed in myself and a friend while I was doing this course.

Downtalking your own feelings

I was walking home with a friend from work who was sharing something that had happened that day which upset her. I was listening and nodding and could definitely understand how she was getting frustrated by the thing that had happened. I empathised and thought I would have been frustrated by this as well. And then just as she had finished talking about the thing that happened she added:

Sorry, I know it’s stupid and I shouldn’t get upset about this.

It was extremely clear to me in that moment that she was starting into the so familiar spiral of self-blame. Her feelings of frustration were completely valid, and yet rather than accepting that this was a difficult moment and being kind to herself she went and berated herself for feeling the way she did.

This was all too familiar to me, because I had recently done it to myself in a slightly different way.

Piling on the guilt

In December of last year I found out that my dad had a tumour in his throat and needed surgery. It’s always upsetting when a loved one gets sick and this situation was no different. I’ve always been very close to my dad so it shocked and scared me. My mind went to the worst case scenarios of course and then it added an extra bit of spice: massive guilt. I felt extremely guilty over the fact that I was single and had not produced any grand children for him. Not that he’d have ever asked for something like that. But that’s where my mind went and I started feeling awful and found myself crying and berating myself.

But then I remembered my little exercise. 

I took a deep breath, put my hand on my heart, caressed it with the other and acknowledged my difficult situation and wished kindness on myself. This didn’t take away from the pain and fear I felt over my dad’s situation, but it did stop me from spiralling down and piling on additional suffering onto myself unnecessarily.

And that is really where the magic lies in this exercise. Rather than blaming ourselves or feeling guilty over things outside of our control, let’s choose to be kind to ourselves and keep growing, just like the trees (see how I brought it back to the beginning of the post there?).

I especially love how this tree shows us that just because the ground beneath you ends doesn’t mean you can’t grow high up into the air. Sometimes things not going your way is the biggest blessing because you’re forced to change the direction of your thinking and it may lead you to finding a clearer path.

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Happy continuous growing, folks.

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How I experienced the power of gratitude on one of the most stressful days you can imagine

I wrote this post on 17 January 2017, but it’s worth re-sharing here one year later:

“Allow me to set the scene. Last week I travelled for work. I knew it was going to be a test when I arrived at the airport and had forgotten my passport. Luckily, since I was traveling between Germany and Ireland I was able to proceed with my German ID card.

Monday, I flew to Hamburg in the morning and got the train to Berlin after a client meeting in the evening.

Tuesday, I had 2 client meetings and a client dinner.

Wednesday morning, I flew from Berlin to Frankfurt for another client meeting and then to Salzburg in the evening.

Thursday, I had a full day client meeting and client dinner.

So, we get to Friday.

By this time, I had travelled more in one week than some people do in 6 months. I was tired, fed up and wanted nothing more than to go home.

We were supposed to fly from Salzburg, Austria, to Frankfurt at 7am to catch a flight from Frankfurt to Dublin at 10:50am.

When we got to the airport at 6:30am the flight was already announced to be delayed till 7:30am. Of course, 7:30 came and went and all of a sudden the flight showed as cancelled. As it turned out it was due to bad weather in Frankfurt. Shortly thereafter I also got a text telling me my flight from Frankfurt to Dublin was cancelled. After a little bit of shock and panic we checked our options and found there was a flight from Munich to Dublin at 10:55am. Munich was about a 2h drive away.

Off we went to the car rentals. 5 different companies, the first 4 I asked told me they had no cars available. Number 5 was our lucky number, and we didn’t care about the cost, which was pretty dear. At about 8am, we hit the road.

My German colleague was driving, our other colleague in the passenger seat and I was in the back, trying to reach the airline by phone, only to find they didn’t have an open line for another hour. We drove and since we had a tight timeline the driver stepped on the gas a bit. Since she was a bit faster than you should be while passing the boarder, she missed the nice police officer waving at her to swerve out for a checkup. A few minutes later blue lights and a siren made us realize the error of our ways as the police car pulled in front of us and flashed “Follow”. The police officer was nice enough, asked for our ID and went back to his car to check them. It took him about 15 minutes to get back, apologizing for the delay and wishing us good luck on our journey.

We continue on and make fairly good time, including a stop to refuel where I was in charge of just that while the driver ran to the bathroom to save time. While driving I also manage to reach the airline and have my colleague and myself put on the plane from Munich to Dublin. When we finally got to the airport at 10 to 10 we were feeling relieved. But it took them another 10 minutes to take the car off our hands. So my colleague and I rock up to the check-in counter at 10:08. The airline person was about to walk away and close up shop when she spied us. Clearly not impressed, she berated us for being late, saying the counter closed at 10:10 and despite hearing our story continued to let us know that was no reason to show up so late. We finally get our tickets and proceed to security where I both beep, despite having ZERO metal on me, and get chosen for a random explosives check.

Remember when I told you I had forgotten my passport that week? It meant I couldn’t use the electronic passport control but had to walk the extra 70m to the manned passport booths. At this time, they call boarding for our flight. When we get there and I take out my ID I realize my ticket is missing. I check all pockets and can’t find it so I run all the way back to security, but don’t find it there, either. I’m told I’ll get a new one at the gate and so run back to passport control where my colleague was waiting for me, looking at her phone. Next to her on the ground is my ticket.

Having walked all the way to the right to get to passport control we now have to walk another 10 minutes the other way to get to the gate. Finally, we get on the bus that will take us to the plane. We’re not the last people on the bus. We’re not even the last people on the plane. There’s a few more things like some late comers and some technical difficulties but finally we take off and fly to Dublin. I felt so so lucky at that stage.

Back in Dublin I go into the office to attend a few meetings and pick up my new shoes which got delivered during the week. At the end of the day, just before I head out, one of my colleagues ask me if I would officiate his wedding at a beautiful lake in Switzerland this summer. I feel so humbled and happy and say yes.

Finally, it’s time to go home. So I order a taxi and get the rudest driver. But as I get in the car and he tries to make me feel back I decide I won’t let him. Instead, I recall the gratitude I’m feeling for being in Dublin, against all odds, and having been shown a great amount of trust by my colleague. I start texting some friends about it and it takes over my thoughts and I forget about the rude driver.

That night, after having been awake since 4am Dublin time, I head into town for a Toastmasters meeting. I’ve done that before, going to meetings after a long week of traveling for work, and I always had to go home straight after because I was just completely drained of all energy and I’d usually get a cold the next day. Not so this time. I am full of energy and stay out with my friends until half past 11.

Knowing the only difference between previous trips and this one was the way I chose to think about what happened to me that day, I can honestly say that being grateful has enabled me to live life to the fullest last Friday and given me energy beyond belief. If you’re not convinced yet, just try it for yourself the next time you’re having a bad day. Look for the blessing in disguise or just find something small to be grateful for despite your bad fortune. It may change your life for the better.”

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Loss and Recovery – Reflections on 2017

Has your year been full of joy or pain? Probably a bit of both a different times.  I’m no different in that regard. Although from August until November there’s been a lot of loss and most of it seemed to happen all at once. I lost my grandfather, 2 friends, my best friend moved away, work announced a big change to my job, I didn’t get a management role I had applied for and waited 8 weeks to hear back from and finally a technical issue caused me to clear out my bank account.

Phew…Right?

Throughout it all I felt tired, sad and constantly at the brink of tears.

I have to admit that depression is not new to me. I’ve dealt with it at least twice before and never needed to take any antidepressants, instead using journaling, talking to friends, exercise and generally looking after myself to get through. But this time felt different. While mentally I was trying to be kind to myself and do all the things that worked in the past, physically I felt out of control. Anything could make me cry, it was frustrating and exhausting and I was ready to try drugs just to regain some energy so I could tackle the rest.

There were moments when I managed to put the coaching knowledge to work. Like that one day I arrived at Manchester Airport and was sooo sick of all the people around me and just wanted them all to disappear. As I dragged my little carry-on case towards the trains I thought to myself “why are you in such a crappy mood? I don’t like this mood, let’s change it”. The only way I know to instantly lift my mood is by conjuring up things I’m grateful for. This may be the most useful tool I learned while training to be a life coach as it’s completely free of charge and can be done silently in your head without anyone knowing. So I made a mental list about things I was grateful for, like the fact that I have two working legs that could carry me through the airport, a job that allowed me to travel and pay my bills, friends at Toastmasters I would hang out with that weekend and so on. I was still tired and close to tears as was the standard but at least I felt some relief.

Another thing that kept me sane throughout that time was my music. I started going to a weekly ukulele jam session where I’d sing and play for 3-5 hours each week and actually felt energized after. So I brought a ukulele with me on that trip to the UK and when our train got stuck outside the station for an hour I just took it out and played. People around me sang along and requested songs. It was the quickest hour stuck on a train ever. When I finally left the station in Sheffield one of the guys from the carriage was waiting for me to give me a hug and thank me for turning what could have been a horrible experience into a very enjoyable one. It felt great to be appreciated like that, but the feeling didn’t last because of the overarching lack of energy.

Then my personal trainer changed everything. Simply by asking if I was taking enough vitamins. I said that I wasn’t taking any and she suggested I get myself some vitamin D. Living in Ireland I have often heard others talk about how lack of vitamin D was causing them issues but I never thought it was affecting me. If only I’d known sooner.

This isn’t supposed to be product placement, but here’s picture of what I now consider my saviour:

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Four days into taking this it felt like someone had opened the curtains. The veil was lifted and I felt like myself again. Suddenly I could think straight and even though I was experiencing a nasty head cold I felt uplifted and positive about what lay ahead. If you have never experienced depression it may be hard to comprehend how much of a burden was lifted, but imagine someone had draped you into a lead filled blanket and you had to go about your day in this for two months and suddenly you could take it off. That is the best way I know to describe this feeling.

And so I come to reflect on 2017 and I think the only true way I can is by making another list of things I’m grateful for:

  • my family
  • my friends, no matter where on earth they live at the moment
  • Ukulele Tuesdays (and my new Ukulele friends that came with it)
  • my personal trainer Lisa
  • my Toastmaster friends
  • my job, especially my manager and colleagues
  • the fact that I was able to go on a 1 week yoga retreat to Bali in May
  • my first trip to Canada in August
  • my coaching trainer Mark Rayner who taught me so much that helped me get through the tough times this year and basically adopted me when I visited Canada
  • my mom’s new cat – Klausi

I hope you can all look back at 2017 and think of at least 3 things you are grateful for this past year.

To round it off, here’s a picture of Klausi when he was 8 weeks old.

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Have a great start into 2018!