Life of a fraud: on deceiving myself

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I have been living the life of a fraud. A trickster, an imposter. I have been disingenuous. Lying to myself. Dishonest and deceitful.

This hard cold fact, hit me with full force as I was walking to work and listening to a podcast. Completely engrossed in the story being told, I did not realise what was going on deeper in my mind, behind the scenes. My subconscious was processing a story so completely distant from my own. Yet from the words came a pain for me so great, I almost double over on the spot, onto the pavement, as cars drove by with parents inside; people rushing to drop their children to school.

The instigator of my own undoing in that moment was the incredibly talented Janet Mock, her podcast is one in a series I am obsessed with listening to at the moment: Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations. I have been listening to them in order, working my way down the list from the most recent to older ones, until a new one pops up and then I listen to the latest. I have given myself over to the order and release of new podcasts. They dictate what I listen to. I have let the universe decide what I need to hear that day, and try to be open to whatever lands. On this particular day it was Janet Mock, the director, writer and producer of one of my favourite shows Pose - which I love for bringing to the world the reality and the stories about ‘New York City's African-American and Latino LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming ballroom culture scene’ of the 80s. In the podcast, Janet talks about ‘The Path to Authenticity: Embracing the Otherness.’ When I started the podcast I did not make the connection that she was the director, writer and producer of Pose. Even though, I was excited to listen, because of the title, because I have been thinking deeply for some time about how people find their authentic self, and I believe we are all on this journey throughout life, on the path to authenticity. I have come to the realisation that it is the journey that we must cherish: the moments of wondering lost, the elation of discovering, the peace in finding a checkpoint, the anticipation and excitement of moving on again to continue the search. And I have come to terms with the fact that the destination - authenticity - is simply the pulley wheel or axle designed to support our movement, our change in direction along the taut cable of life.

On a fresh winter’s morning, walking at a steady, rhythmic pace to work, protecting my ears from the cold with my headphones, keeping warm in a scarf and enjoying the soft winter sunshine on my cheeks, I lost myself in Janet’s story of otherness. Her story of being born a girl in a boy’s body; of having her parents ‘express her gender for her’ but knowing from a very young age that the expression of her true self did not align with ‘what those around her deemed normal.’ Janet’s story and her words of wisdom are inspirational. Janet tells her story factually, but with profound emotion. You know a good storyteller when they crack something open deep inside you; where you find yourself sobbing or laughing out loud as you read a book or listen to a podcast. Or when you feel that kick in the guts, the seismic shift in your soul, the fog clearing from your perception, as you suddenly come to a realisation about yourself - through their story, through their words.

‘Telling our stories allows us to connect with one another, but most importantly, it allows us to connect with ourselves.’ Janet Mock

Sliding doors

Perhaps it was her words ‘turned out different’ that held me as Janet spoke about being different to what her parents expected her to be. Perhaps it was Janet talking about her otherness that made me think of my own otherness during my childhood; as a child of parents who were Lithuanian immigrants. Of feeling separate from life at times, almost like I was an observer of life, not a participant. Maybe it was hearing Janet talk about the moment she realised for the first time there was a disconnect in herself, when she took a dare and wore her grandmother’s flowery muumuu, perhaps it was her words ‘it wasn’t funny to me, because it was the first time that I realised that the me I knew myself to be was not right’. Maybe it was hearing her talking about learning to ‘hide who she really was’ which got me. I didn’t have her incredible journey, or anything comparable. But listening to her story, I reflected on how I felt my life had ‘turned out different’ to what I expected it to be; and I felt something familiar when she said ‘the me I knew myself to be was not right’. I knew I was hiding ‘who I really was’. Although her story is her story, Janet doesn’t let you escape your own and tells us we must ‘turn up the frequency of our own truths’.

‘We all do this, we all put up fronts to protect our unspoken and unexpressed self. Sometimes it is easiest to conceal our truths by blending in.’ Janet Mock

It was on Janet’s last line in the podcast, that I felt a sharp physical pain in my chest. A pain which stopped me walking. It sounds so ridiculously cliché, but I felt a ‘stab in my heart’ and it ‘stopped me in my tracks’. There is a reason for clichés, they are often accurate. Standing stiff, grabbing at my chest I felt the grief of a regret spill out of me. A regret and a sadness I did not realise I had been carrying for nearly a quarter of a century. The regret of my 24 year-old self applying for a respected professional writing course, a difficult one to get into with limited spots. Of having to submit pieces to get into this course. Which I did, getting an offer of a place. Published writers have come out of this course. Novels and memoirs have landed on the shelves from this course.

What came home to me, and for me, listening to Janet’s story, was that often we are ‘too afraid to say out loud what we secretly know’ about ourselves. Too afraid, no matter how big or small those truths about our identity might be to the world. Janet’s is big, hers is about gender identity and embracing her otherness. Mine is much smaller. It is about identifying your true calling in life. For me, it is about identifying as a writer. Sitting comfortably with the fact that I was born to write, and I will die writing.

In that instant I felt, physically, the regret of making the wrong decision all those years ago. Of not accepting that course. Of choosing an editing and publishing course instead. Because it was the safer thing to do. Job prospects were better. Because I was too afraid to embrace my true self. My writing self. It was much safer to hide her behind an editor. Or a communications manager or a marketing manager.

I paused, breathed and started walking up the hill. I was surprised at this revelation, which felt like it came out of nowhere. I had no idea I had been carrying the grief of that decision for so long. And it was in that moment that it lifted. And I laughed, with lightness, as I realised I had been living the life of a fraud. I was a fraud. I had been pretending to ‘not be a writer’. I was pretending to be things which allowed me to write, but which did not allow me to call myself a writer. I was not owning my true self. I laughed because in that moment I realised that you cannot run away from yourself, from your calling, from what you are here to do. It follows you. The writer inside me has alway been there, she has been stalking me ever since that day I turned my back on giving it a go because I had already made up my mind that I would fail. That I wouldn’t become a published author. But she didn’t care, she has been incredibly patient. She created this blog. Which was originally about branding, until I came to terms with who she was and the fact she wasn’t going away. She was happy to sit in the back seat while the communications manager and marketing manager sat in front holding the steering wheel of life. But she is here and she is not letting me get away with it. Twenty four years later, she is looking back at me in the mirror. The writer.

Ask yourself the question

My journey to come to terms with my true self as a writer only started when I had the courage to come out of hiding from behind ‘the brand specialist’ and start writing about things I really cared about, and what just spilled out of me. It took speed when others saw me as a writer. When people I knew started calling me a writer. When people reached out to thank me for my writing. When recently, someone asked me not to stop writing. That was when the back door and the front door opened and my writing self had the opportunity to take the front seat. I had to see myself through the eyes of others, in order to give myself permission to be able to see myself as a writer through my own eyes. For those people, I will be forever grateful.

However, I am perplexed by the fact that something which gives me such great joy, I have not embraced proudly. Something which comes so naturally and pours out of my fingers from a source I cannot identify, I am shy about. That I almost feel ashamed to say it out loud. That I need permission from others to own it. I know as I write these words, there are people out there, who will read them and identify with them. They too will realise that they have been running from their true self, from their calling in life. They too are ashamed of saying out loud their childhood dream, the thing that brings them most joy. They too have become lost in the easiness of being someone else. They too are waiting for permission to get into the front seat of life.

Don’t wait for the permission of others. Give yourself permission to be who you truly are. Give yourself permission to be your authentic self. Listen to the voice within you. Set yourself free with a simple question Janet asked herself in order to find her true self. A question we should not shy away from, no matter where we are in our lives, no matter how much ground is behind us.

‘A question we should ask ourselves, whether we are twelve or twenty, or in the twilight of our lives. Who am I? Who am I to me? That is the question.’ Janet Mock.

Your true self

I listened again to the podcast, and Janet Mock telling her story, in order to write this piece. A piece I hope will encourage people to listen to the stories of others in order to find their own truth. For people to have the same experience I had - to be slapped with the reality of the importance to ‘unapologetically embrace ourselves’. In my second listening, I heard consciously the words that spoke to my subconscious that day. Words, which primed me during that half hour to Janet’s closing statement. Words which set me up as they placed themselves somewhere deep inside me, ready to support an awakening, as I walked past the park, along the shops, across the crossing, over the railway line, down the hill, under the underpass and onto the pavement by the school. Janet says it perfectly.

‘My hope is that in hearing my story, you are propelled to excavate that part of yourself that you have been hiding - and you allow others to see you for who you are, without doubt, without shame, without apology. My hope is you step outside the comfort of your boxes, and holy and boldly be your truest fiercest self. ‘ Janet Mock

Making the trek

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Life is a journey, not a destination. And it comes with ups and downs as we climb our metaphorical mountains in search of our purpose: to find meaning in our lives and to create meaning in the lives of others.

‘The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.’ Fydor Dostoevsky

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what I might regret on my death bed. Perhaps it is the mid-century birthday creeping up on me that’s doing it. Or perhaps it is because of the fresh loss of a friend, and other recent experiences, which have reminded me (with a slap) that life is fragile and precious.

Regardless as to why, thinking about potential regrets on my death bed has been the motivator to clock off work on time to get home to my family. It has reminded me to pause and be grateful for the people in my life, and to sit back and enjoy the moment. Projecting myself forward to face my future ‘death bed self’ has helped my ‘self of today’ think more carefully about what is important in life.

In 2009, palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware, recorded the regrets voiced by those she was caring for during their last weeks. Honouring their requests she shared their wisdom. It should come as no surprise, that the number one regret of people dying was about being brave enough to live an authentic life, honouring their true self and their dreams.

‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ Top regret of the dying, Bronnie Ware

Having something to live for, something true to the core of who we are, not only helps us stay alive, it helps us feel alive - and improves the quality of our lives. A 2017 study published in Jama Psychiatry reported that having a purpose in life reduces the decline of physical health. The participants in the study who had goals, or a sense of meaning, had stronger grip strength and faster walking speeds than those without a goal. Important, given a weak grip strength and slow walking speeds are signs of declining physical health and an increased risk of disability in older adults. Another study, from the same year, published in BMC’s Sleep Science and Practice Journal, reported that better sleep quality is related to having a ‘higher level of meaning and purpose in life’. The link between surviving life and having a purpose is found in the Forward of Victor Stretcher’s beautiful graphic novel ‘On Purpose’, where medical physician, researcher and author Dean Ornish MD, reminds us of Viktor Frankl observations in his classic book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. Frankl speaks of inmates in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany and how he found ‘those inmates able to find meaning even in this dire situation were much more likely to survive.’ A truth echoed in the amazing interview on Super Soul Sunday I listened to recently. A podcast where Dr Edith Eva Eger - holocaust survivor, psychologist and author - shares her incredible story, and how having meaning and purpose in life was critical to her survival.

No point in arguing with the great philosophers and psychologists of our time, research studies, medical doctors and people like Dr Eger. To have purpose is to have life.

Lost

It was with a shock that I realised I had become lost earlier this year, and in a state without purpose. I couldn’t understand it. I have family, a loving husband and beautiful children. Surely they are my purpose. I have extended family, my dear mum, my dad who lives in spirit now, my brother and sister, my in-laws and more. I feel loved. I have dear friends, who care for me deeply and are a joy to hang out with. I have all the material things I need. I have security. I have a job I love. A book project. And yet, despite all this and more, life had lost its meaning for me. Despite all that was in my life, I could not shake the feeling I was not living my true life, as my authentic self. ‘Midlife crisis’ I hear you yell? Perhaps. Painful, nonetheless. I felt like I was wandering aimlessly, day to day, in the wilderness of life. Without an anchor point. Drifting. ‘Life doing me’, bumping me this way and that, instead of ‘me doing life’ and choosing my path, my direction.

Enter stage left: Bob Proctor and Sandy Gallagher’s Thinking into Results. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was lucky enough to be invited to this course, facilitated by Georgia Ellis from BlueChip Minds. This course is a culmination of decades of research and reading by Bob Proctor, alongside insights and learnings from his conversations with change agents, philosophers and people shaking up the world in some way. All cleverly designed to take you on a journey of self discovery. And that is exactly what I did (once I got past my preconceived ideas - which rose quickly to the surface, that this was some ‘get rich quick’ philosophy where the definition of success is all about money - and opened myself fully to the experience).

The ABC of Goals

In our first lesson we learnt about the importance of having a goal, about the different types of goals and we were asked to come up with a personal and/or professional goal. A key learning for me from this lesson, and from this course, was the difference between an A-type, B-type and C-type goal.

An A-type goal is something we know we can do. It is something we already know how to do. It is often something we are already doing. Unfortunately, in professional development discussions in our workplaces, we often settle for A-type goals. There is no satisfaction to be gained in doing this, as there is no growth associated with A-type goals. A-type goals are often about doing ‘more of the same’. At work it is often the A-type goals driving us. I am going to deliver this project, or that project. Which, of course I am, it is what I know how to do, what is expected of me, why I am hired to do , where I use my expertise (with my eyes closed). Doing something you know how to do, and know you can do, does not give purpose and meaning. A-type goals can also be ‘I want to do more of this or more of that’, but doing more of something we know how to do doesn’t give us purpose and meaning either. All this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have A-type goals, but we should not have them, alone. An A-type goal for me is to go with the family to Peru for my 50th birthday. I know I can do it, I know how to do it. I just now need to save for it and organise it. A nice goal, but not one that anchors you to life, if you get my meaning.

B-type goals are those we think we can do, but we don’t know how to do. Like learning a language. My B-type goal is learning Spanish. I am lucky enough to have had an introductory course at work, and have recently joined Duolingo and I am really enjoying learning a language. Especially Spanish, as it is something I have wanted to do since I was in my early twenties. Learning a language is really satisfying, but isn’t necessarily something giving purpose to my life. Yep, a B-type goal for sure.

C-type goals is where it is at, according to Bob Proctor. These are the big ones, where you dream big and ask yourself the big question ‘what do I want…what do I really want?’ It is a fantasy, taking you out of reality and it is meant to scare the hell out of you. Yep, you know you have chosen a C-type goal when it gives you a sick feeling in your stomach. When you palms start to sweat. When the fear of failure immediately is upon you. To find your C-type goal, you sit down, relax, close your eyes and let your imagination lead. You let it run wild and see what comes up, see where you land. You don’t think about how you are going to achieve it, or if you can, you just put all your attention into working out what it is that you want. And it hits you. My C-type goal: to find a cure for mental illness. ‘Are you crazy?’ I hear you say. ‘That’s damn impossible.’ I hear you shout. Affirmations. It really is a C-type goal.

Attention Gym

And so I woke up with my C-type goal and to begin with, although it felt completely right, I was a little scared to tell people. I imagined them saying exactly what I was thinking. ‘Who the hell do you think you are? You don’t have a medical degree. You don’t have any expertise in this area (other than some life experience of your own, and of those around you). You can’t do this.’

Despite my doubts. I let the goal sit with me. I began to share it with others in the course. I began to share it with those closest to me. The fear of being judged by this goal disappeared when I focused on the fact that some of the biggest discoveries and breakthroughs in life could not have happened unless someone had a crazy idea they just would not let go off. Why can’t we have a world free of mental illness? Why give up on this before we even start? Why not just hold it as the thing I desire most and see what comes of it. See what finds me.

And this was the beginning of my unfolding. A gentle but beautiful awakening and an opening of my mind of what could be.

Holding this goal in my heart, led me to start the Attention Gym. A little side project I have started, where I am on a journey of discovery. A journey exploring how exercising your muscle of attention can impact your wellbeing. This has led me to podcasts, books, websites, blogs, research, a meditation course, ideas, aromatherapy and working towards a meditation teaching qualification. This has also led me back to myself. Back to my love of philosophy, of Jung, his mandalas, the collective unconscious. Back to my love for Ayurvedic medicine, which has fascinated and intrigued me since I was a teenager. Back to my creative self. Playing with an Instagram blog and building the idea of social media being about community. Developing a website to share my journey, my learnings. Experimenting with animations. This led me back to my writing. Back to giving back to others.

My second mountain

Holding this goal in my heart has led me to my second mountain. New York Times columnist, David Brooks puts forward this concept in his book aptly called ‘The Second Mountain - the quest for a moral life.’ In his book he explains how in life we trek up our first mountain - to a career, marriage, family, a life we planned - only to reach the summit and feel unfulfilled, lost, without vision (it is cloudy up there). With this realisation we fall, roll down the mountain into the valley of our self and our suffering. A place where he encourages us to take firm footing and learn, discover and grow.

‘The right thing to do when you are in moments of suffering is to stand erect in the suffering. Wait. See what it has to teach you. Understand that your suffering is a task that, handled correctly, with the help of others, will lead to enlargement, not diminishment.

The valley is where we shed our old self so the new self can emerge. There is no short cuts. There’s just the same eternal three-step process that the poets have described from time eternal: from suffering to wisdom to service.’ p38, The Second Mountain, David Brooks.

So I stood in my suffering. As erect as I could stand in that valley of murkiness, darkness and messiness. And I found the path to my second mountain. And I am now making the trek.

Found

‘Not till we are lost do we begin to find ourselves.’ Henry David Thoreau

My suffering taught me that my purpose in life is to be a student of life. That I was made for learning. That I am here to share my learnings. That I should prepare myself for the long journey up the second mountain. Make sure I have the supplies I need. Those around me, a team of like-minded people. Those that believe in me. And to make sure in my back pack of life, is a good supply of self belief and generosity of spirit.

The joy is in the journey up the mountain. The discoveries I make along the way. Which I will share, as a writer. The first mountain was for me. The second mountain is for me and my community. For our collective mental health.

The power of kindness

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I recently came to a firm conclusion about human beings. Something I really should have realised a long time ago, but I guess I can be a little slow sometimes.

What came to me, is the realisation that we are all vessels of joy. Each and every single one of us. That some of us are full of joy, and some of us have less joy inside. Like cups randomly filled with water, we each have a different volume of joy. And, within ourselves, our joy fluctuates. Some days we have more joy than other days. Sometimes we are simply bursting with it. Other times we have very little. At times none at all.

Thinking about people this way, as vessels of joy, got me wondering about what increases and decreases our joy. I came to the conclusion that, as relational beings, it is how we are treated and how we treat others, which impacts how much joy we have inside of us. That there is a direct relationship between joy and kindness. That it is that simple.

When you are kind to someone, their level of joy increases. When you show generosity of spirit to someone, their level of joy goes up. A genuine and authentic compliment can build the volume of joy inside the person receiving it. But only if the compliment comes from the heart. False flattery is manipulative and actually decreases the joy.

A kind gesture - as simple as noticing where someone is at, asking if they are OK - increases the volume of joy. Looking after someone, putting their needs before yours or going out of your way to help them, can build joy. And not just for the person you are being kind to, but also within yourself.

Each and every time you show a little genuine kindness, you increase the joy within you. You, as a vessel of joy, become fuller. This is the magic of kindness.

An impression of increase

I came across the concept ‘an impression of increase’ earlier this year. It was a key concept from one of the lessons, which was part of a course I was doing: Bob Proctor’s Thinking into Results, facilitated by Georgia Ellis from BlueChip Minds. I remember hearing the phrase for the first time and being really confused. I couldn’t wrap my head around what ‘an impression of increase’ meant or what it looked like. And then, as it was unpacked during the class and we explored the idea of being a giving person, sending good energy to the people you interact with and bringing to people’s attention what they do well, I realised it was, simply, what I call ‘kindness’.

We were asked, as homework for this lesson, to spend the week noticing when we left ‘an impression of increase’, and to write it down. To pay attention to our everyday actions and when we ‘increased others’. My first thought was, ‘Man, I do this a lot. I am often kind to people. I am going to spend a lot of time writing things down.’ Oh, how wrong I was. Half way through the first day of the exercise, I had nothing written down. I rationalised this (and gave myself comfort) by deciding it was the fact that we were actively doing an exercise, which was getting in the way. I remember thinking, ‘My kindness is organic and being asked to notice it, and write it down, is making me overthink it, and I am not doing it like I normally do. We learnt today that a critical aspect of giving is that it must be spontaneous. The exercise is taking the spontaneity out of it. That is what is happening, that is what is wrong.’ Yeah, you bet I felt much better after that. But, by the end of the first day, I hadn’t written anything down. Nothing at all. Nada. Zip. I went home and that night I had a very restless sleep with many sobering thoughts.

What this exercise made me realise, was that I don’t leave ‘an impression of increase’ as often as I thought. I am nowhere near as kind as I imagined myself to be. This was, of course, the intention of the homework.

Joy is not happiness

Joy is different from happiness. Joy is collective, happiness is individual. Happiness is an emotion, joy is a state of being. Joy is what holds a community together. It is the stitching in the fabric of humanity. And we are all responsible in our lives, as to how much joy is in each of our communities. Every family member contributes to the joy of the household. Each person impacts the joy of a friendship group. Every employee impacts the joy of an organisation. Joy does not come from the top. The head of a company alone does not dictate the volume of joy in a workplace, nor does a parent solely drive the volume of joy for his or her family. Everyone contributes, everyone is responsible. And usually, it comes from the bottom up, where the number of people, relationships and interactions are greater. We all have the power within us to unlock the power of kindness and fill the vessels of joy around us.

Filling the cup

Start noticing how often you leave ‘an impression of increase’, how often you spontaneously give to others and the frequency of your kindness. Do it for a week and then compare the reality to your perception. Make kindness a habit. Watch the joy increase in those around you, in your community and in your own self. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to be over the top. It can be the simplest thing, the smallest of gestures.

“When a child walks in the room, your child or anybody else's child, do your eyes light up? That's what they're looking for.” Toni Morrison

The beautifully talented author Toni Morrison, who blessed us with such wisdom in her writing, left this earth recently. Thankfully her words live on. This inspirational statement, these very real words apply to everyone, not just children. When someone, anyone, walks into your home, your office, your workspace, your life, do your eyes light up? That is what we are all looking for. It is how you leave an impression of increase. It is how you fill the vessels of joy. It is the power of kindness.