For a couple of years I felt well and truly stuck…
I was well educated and thought that would automatically translate to ‘success’ in life (success was pretty narrowly defined in terms of paid employment, so perhaps I wasn’t that well educated after all).
I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but knew I wanted to make a positive impact, and started a career as a Probation Officer.
After my second child, with a husband that worked away a lot and no family support in the area, I left this job to raise our children.
I naively thought that during this time I would figure out what it was I wanted to ‘do’ with my life, besides raising two small people (still talking employment here).
The problem with this way of thinking, was that I was so focused on employment as an indicator of success and worth, that I forgot to take account of all the other amazing areas of my life: a wonderful family, a nice home, good friends.
For the early years of bringing up my children I knew contentment. I was exhausted most of the time, so maybe I had no energy to question anything, but neither did I have any idea where I would squeeze work in, even if I’d wanted to, so it wasn’t even an issue. I was content with my choice.
But the longer I remained out of paid employment and the older the children got, the less ‘of value’ I began to feel. I also became very sensitive to ‘lady of leisure’ jokes made at my expense (of which there were many).
As my children reached 7 and 8 and I approached my mid-thirties an imaginary clock started ticking. There was a mounting internal pressure that if I didn’t ‘figure it all out’ in the next couple of years, all would be lost, I’d be over the hill, too old to retrain, unemployable, a fish out of water, consigned to the rubbish heap forever…ok I’m being a bit melodramatic, but you get the picture.
The very fact that all of this reads like an archetypal stay-at-home-Mum-becomes-bored-housewife-and-has-midlife-crisis scenario made it even worse, I had zero sympathy or compassion for myself, and this translated to a lot of negative self-talk and internal chatter.
I basically labelled myself a whingeing idiot, and veered between telling myself to just suck it up and be happy with my life (I am, after all, very lucky, and I recognised this, which didn’t help me think kind thoughts about myself when I was wishing for more), and berating myself for not getting out there and making something happen (I don’t know what I wanted to make happen, I’d say win the lottery, but I don’t even play it).
I’d lost myself, and with it I’d lost sight of the fact that the definitions of success I was comparing myself to weren’t even mine.
I began to imagine myself in the life of every interesting person I read about or met. ‘Could I do that?’ I would think, as I mentally tried on their life, would that give me what I’m looking for?
The more my thoughts circled, seemingly stuck on a loop, the more I realised I needed to do something.
I began my foray into podcast listening with the podcast Pressing Pause, with Gabriel Trainor. She has a lovely, soothing voice, and some useful cognitive behavioural techniques to combat negative thinking.
On the recommendation of a friend, I tried Fearne Cotton’s podcast, The Happy Place and then Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail.
It was a complete revelation to me that seemingly ‘successful’ people, (the rich and famous), had the same internal struggles as everyone else.
So, if success is not defined by wealth, status and achievement, what is it defined by?
Well, that’s actually up to me, and you.
All is not lost
I’m approaching thirty-seven in a couple of months, and on the outside not a lot has changed, but on the inside it’s a different story.
I became a little obsessed with self-development for a while. I’d already learned how good feeling strong physically made me feel, and I understood something about nutrition and the impact of what I consume on my thoughts and mood, so I suppose it was only natural to want to understand how I think, particularly because my negative thinking became so problematic for a time.
I learned a little here and there about neuroscience and how my brain works (it helps to label the machinery that’s at work when thoughts start spiralling), I learned about self-compassion, I learned how to meditate, I learned about breathing, I came to understand the role that fear plays in my life, I learned more about how to listen to my intuition, I learned how to get back in touch with my feelings and I learned how to trust myself a little more.
All of this is still a work in progress, so I’ve also learned that I’m never done learning.
I considered therapy, but then I started writing, and for me this has been it’s own kind of therapy.
I began to uncover what matters to me, and discovered that much of what I thought was missing didn’t matter as much as I thought it did, and much of what matters I already have.
I realised that I define my meaning, and that all the external success in the world won’t matter a bit if I’m not at peace with myself.
An important part of my journey has been practicing acceptance for myself where I am right now, because it’s where I’m meant to be (just ask the snail).
Keeping it simple
Meaning can be found in the smallest of things, from a chat on the street with a fellow dog walker, to volunteering with my daughter at the local community shop, and sometimes just noticing the nature right outside my window.
I took a part time job a couple of months ago as a midday supervisor at a local primary school.
The role is somewhere between waitress, boxing match referee and negotiator. I’m definitely underqualified.
Watching these young children play is like witnessing a microcosm of life playing out every lunch break. There are tears, tantrums, joy, elation, injustices, creativity, boredom, anger, indifference, friendships and enmities, loyalty, caring, and compassion.
So many things flow through these children in such a short space of time, and for the most part they just get on with it. They feel their feelings as they come up, let them flow through and then let them go. They can be arguing one minute and best friends the next. They keep it simple.
As we get older, I think we forget to keep it simple, because really, deep down, most of what matters in life is pretty simple.
‘The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.’Alan W. Watts
I still feel stuck at times
I usually feel stuck when I slip back into patterns of framing success as employment (this happens a lot), or comparing myself to other people (usually with full time jobs), or thinking that I should have life figured out by now, instead of accepting that life will always be a work in progress.
That’s where I’ve got my writing to fall back on.
A quick read of my poems reminds me what is important to me. I make the meaning: how I choose to look at things, interact with life, and how I choose to be present in my life, makes all the difference.
Meaning doesn’t have to be found in a job, or a salary, or status, though it can be found in any one of those things.
I get to decide, because meaning comes from inside me.
How about you? Where do you find your meaning? Leave a comment below and let me know. If you enjoy my writing please enter your email to subscribe. You can also follow me on Instagram.