One of my clients said to me once ‘It’s all right for you – you’ve got confidence’.
Oh, if only you knew.
I used to be judgmental. I mean full on, rolling-your-eyes-out-loud judgmental. It wasn’t even a case of double standards either because the person I was most judgmental about was myself.
I shouldn’t be lazy. I should work harder. I should be making jam and baking pies. I should be better at my job. I should get more done. I should get up earlier. I should spend less money. I should vacuum every day. I should be more punctual. I should put other people first more (if that was possible. Spoiler – it wasn’t). I should eat more healthily and do more exercise. I shouldn’t let the laundry pile up. I should do the ironing. I should be more considerate. I shouldn’t wear short skirts at my age. I should be a size 12. I should take better care of my skin. I should keep the cupboard under the stairs tidy. I shouldn’t be afraid of spiders. I shouldn’t get resentful when I had to cook dinner. I should be less neurotic. And so it went on. My life was ruled by the ‘Should Monster’ who stood behind me finding fault with everything I did. If I wanted to go shopping or watch TV or do anything other than be useful and productive, it would tut-tut in a way that reminded me scarily of my mother. Thus I was for nearly 40 years, and boy was it tiring. I was exhausted nearly all the time, and torn between guilt over not doing the things I ‘should’ be doing and misery about not having time – or energy - to do the things I wanted to do.
After my third spell of absence from work due to stress, I thought maybe I should do something about things (see what I did there?) and took myself to the doctor. She determined that I was suffering from depression, which came as a shock. I didn’t know in those days that stress and depression are close relations in the family of Mental Illness. I didn’t know I was Mentally Ill and surely I shouldn’t be? Other people had things much worse than me and they were all fine, weren’t they?
Actually it turned out that they weren’t. I just hadn’t noticed, any more than they had noticed I wasn’t. We’re very good at hiding it. We don’t have to have suffered terrible trauma or abuse to not be fine. You can have had a pretty good life on the whole and still not be fine. That’s ok.
Another thing I didn’t know was that I wasn’t stressed because of my job, but because of the Should Monster. I put myself under so much pressure to do everything ‘right’, from the way I brushed my hair in the mornings to the way I led my team, that I had no energy left to do the things that were actually hard. Because I was caught in the perfectionist cycle, nothing I achieved had any value to me and anything I failed in (which was most things, according to my own standards) was further proof of my inadequacy. I thought I was a failure and just lucky not to have been caught out yet. Being unable to do something – or just not doing it, for whatever reason - equalled failure which equalled bad person.
My doctor sent me to a lovely, patient, smiling lady called Julia who spent an hour a week for nearly two years listening to me moaning about how awful I was and how much better I ‘should’ be. Over time she helped me see that the standard I was holding myself to was so high that success was actually impossible. Nobody but me cared if I didn’t have home made jam and cake in the house, and as I had a full-time full-on job it really wasn’t very realistic to expect myself to a perfect housekeeper as well, even though I didn’t have children (when everyone else did, and was also a perfect housekeeper, and did their jobs really well. Everyone. Ever.) She also helped me realise that it didn’t matter whether I was in fact a brilliant housekeeper and amazing at my job, I wouldn’t believe it until I learned to value myself.
Over time - a lot of time - I went from feeling as though I had a sign on my back (where I couldn’t see it, but everyone else could) saying ‘Failure’ to believing that I not only was good at some stuff, but had value as a person even if there were things I was bad at. Then I started to notice the signs in other people that they were maybe feeling like I had. I became a life coach so I could help people through it. I specialised in working with people who lacked self-confidence – mainly women, but not exclusively. Turns out that even men struggle with self-esteem sometimes, and it's harder for them because they're not supposed to. But self-confidence, like a runny nose with a cold, is only one symptom of what I now call ‘emotional unease’. I don’t much like the term, but I find most people dislike Mental Illness more. When you work with people who are emotionally uneasy it’s very hard to stay within the fairly strict boundaries of coaching, which I was trained to do, and avoid sliding into the more difficult area of counselling, which I wasn’t.
Now I am and I do both, sometimes in the same sentence. Some people need counselling, some want coaching and some don’t want either. Usually when I ask people what they want they say ‘I don’t know’. Then they say something like ‘I just want peace’ or ‘I just wish I didn’t feel so hopeless’. Sometimes they say ‘I just wish I wasn’t in pain all the time’. It took me a long time to realise that physical and emotional pain are intrinsically linked, and each can cause the other. Take away one, the other can get better by itself.
Humans aren’t very tolerant of themselves, as a general rule. Sometimes it comes out as stress, sometimes as bullying, sometimes as anger. Sometimes it doesn’t come out at all, but eats you away from the inside until there’s nothing but pain and darkness left.
It's possible to get better. It's possible to defeat the Should Monster and enjoy life just being you, even if You isn't perfect. It's hard. It's scary. But the scariest and hardest part is admitting that you need help. It needn't be, because actually pretty much everyone feels crappy at least some of the time. You don't notice it in them, and they don't notice it in you.
So it’s all right for me. Well, it is now. And it can be all right for you, too.