Contentment – Santosha

joy womanMany of us think of yoga as a set of physical poses that we hold, to develop strength and flexibility, but in fact asanas (or the physical poses) are just one of the eight limbs of yoga.  The first two limbs are the Yamas and Niyamas, which are basically an ethical code or set of principles for living a yogic life off the mat.

One of my favourite Niyamas is “Santosha”.  Santosha can be translated as contentment, or a sense of peace with one’s self and one’s situation. Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, says that cultivating Santosha will lead to personal joy.  Personal joy seems to be something that we all want, but often seems out of reach.  We think that maybe we will be joyful when we build that extension, get that promotion, perfect our headstand or find a lifelong partner, rather than exploring how we can be joyful right now with what we have and all its imperfections.

Yoga provides a set of tools for exploring how to be joyful in the moment.  The asanas provide a laboratory where we can explore our own physical sensations, breathing and habits of mind as we move into unusual or challenging positions.  Meditation gives us the opportunity to notice what happens in our bodies and minds when we sit in stillness.  Both bring us into the present by focusing us on our moment to moment experience.

My experience of yoga is that the longer I practice, the more I feel at ease and at peace in my life, and sometimes I come away from my yoga practice with a joyful smile of my face that lasts all morning, no matter what my chores. It is easier to find contentment in the present moment than when the mind is flitting all over the place.  since it means I have let go of worries about the future or upsetting interpretations of past events.

Santosha relates closely to a practice I have carried out at several points in my life, that of keeping a gratitude diary.  Taking time to appreciate the good things in my life helps me to feel more cheerful and positive.  Practising gratitude actually rewires the brain so that positive thoughts come more easily to us (this is because those brain pathways are already established).  Gratitude becomes a habit.

It is interesting to contrast gratitude with attachment.   The Yoga Sutras invite us to let go of our attachments to things, relationships or goals.  In 1.15, Patanjali seems to be saying that when we can let go of our attachments to things in the material world, and to thoughts and feelings, then we can settle into a state of non-reaction (or maybe that reaching this level of non-reaction will allow us to let go of our attachments).

1.15 “As for non-reaction, one can recognise that it has been fully achieved when no attachment arises in regard to anything at all, whether perceived directly or learned.” (translated by Chip Hartranft)

1.15 “With constant remembrance of the self, Vairagya, all yearnings fade.” (translated by Nischla Joy Devi)

This seems very perceptive and useful to me.  So much suffering in the world is caused by attachments.  Some of those attachments may be to material things – a new car, a bigger house, a higher salary, job security, fashion purchases – whilst others may be to people or relationships.  If I am craving a new dress but I cannot afford it this month, I will suffer because I was attached to the idea of the dress. If I am craving recognition from my friend for the way I have helped her, I will suffer if I do not receive this recognition. Through meditation I may be able to witness these attachments forming in my mind and realise that they are just mental activities that I can observe, so they loosen their grip on me.

But if I feel grateful for the material possessions I have, my family, my friends, my job or my achievements, does that mean I am actually cultivating the very attachments that Patanjali says I should avoid?  This could be the case, but I think it is possible to cultivate gratitude without strengthening attachments.

Gratitude seems to be to be a positive state of appreciation, whereas attachment becomes negative when I fear losing the object of my attachment.  Santosha seems to be about cultivating that positive appreciation for my life whilst not feeding the fear I might have of losing things, whether they are physical possessions, relationships or emotional states.  An example of this is a work project where I find myself enjoying working with my colleagues or getting into a creative flow with the tasks, rather than being solely focused on the end result.

Yoga supports that by helping me to witness my attachments rather than be consumed by them.  Practising on the mat, I might notice and witness my attachment to  perfecting an arm balance, and rather than getting caught up in frustration that I cannot do it, I just witness the story I am telling myself and let it go.

Santosha seems to be a particularly important Niyama, since many of the other Yamas and Niyamas naturally fall out of this state of peaceful contentment.  If I feel contented with my situation and at peace, I am likely to experience Aparigraha (non-grasping, awareness of abundance) since I know I do not need more material possessions, success or affirmation from others to experience contentment.  If I am in a peaceful state of contentment, I am also more likely to experience Ahimsa (non-violence, compassion for all), since I feel a sense of inner and outer peace and I do not need to take anything away from anyone by force.  So, it also relates to Asteya (non-stealing or generosity).

An interesting challenge is to get the right balance between Tapas, or intense practice to ignite the purifying flame, and Santosha, or contentment.  It requires some will to practice every day and to put effort into asana and meditation with a spiritual goal in mind, and yet we also need to cultivate acceptance of where we currently are in our lives and with our practice.  Wisdom comes from knowing where to apply some effort and where to accept things as they are – this is what I am trying to cultivate in my life!  I am disciplined in doing my practice every day, but I accept that the practice is different each day and sometimes it produces more positive emotions or achievements than others.  I seem to be less attached to some of the achievements (difficult asanas, a particular energetic state or a focused stillness) than I used to be.  Ironically, being less attached to achieving a joyful state actually seems to increase the probability of this being the result of my practice!

 

 

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Exploring Ambivalence

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Ambivalence is defined as the experience of conflicting emotions.  In some ways, we want to change but in other ways we don’t.  It is a fluctuating level of readiness. Most of us have probably experienced ambivalence about keeping the house clean, losing weight, doing more exercise or some other virtuous activity.

 In some ways, we would like to be healthier and look good in our clothes, but in other ways, we enjoy eating biscuits and cakes and don’t want to give them up.  In some ways, we would like to have a spotless house, but we also prefer to spend our time watching TV, gardening, reading or socialising.  In some ways we would like to quit smoking, but in other ways we enjoy the buzz, the social aspect of it or even the sense of “f**k it” self-destruction we experience.  People often recognise the harm of their behaviour but are nevertheless attached to it.

Trying to persuade or force people to change is often unproductive.  If your partner/parent/friend represents one side of the argument by trying to persuade you to change, then it allows and even encourages you to give voice to the other side.   The more someone else argues, “you should change jobs/leave your partner/give up smoking”, the more you are likely to articulate the other side of the argument with “yes but…”.

Since articulating one side of the argument increases your commitment to it (strengthening the neural pathways that correspond to this view), this will reduce your motivation to change.  The conflict is thus acted out and the argument is counterproductive.

There are pros and cons to each side of the conflict, which create this see-saw effect. As the weight begins to tip one way, you will tend to focus on (and shift weight to) the opposite side. This is known as the ‘decisional balance’.  As long as this see-saw effect continues, you will experience some level of ambivalence, and will not be fully committed to change.

Adding to this issue, we tend to prioritise short-term pleasures over long-term gains.  If a lovely bowl of crisps and a pint of beer is sitting right in front of us, our auto-pilot decision-making will tell us to help ourselves and enjoy the tasty, calorific snack, leaving our logical brain muttering somewhere in the background about hangovers and weight-loss.

So, how do you get out of this seesaw situation and build your own motivation to make a change in your life, maybe a change that scares you or will involve giving up short-term pleasures for a long-term gain?

Firstly, you need to acknowledge to yourself all the reasons why you do want to carry on with the negative behaviour or stay in your current comfort zone.  By fulling articulating all the reasons you like this behaviour to yourself, you can then free yourself up from “yes, but..” thinking.  Once you have named all the reasons not to change, you may find the reasons to make a change popping up quite naturally.  Acknowledge that you have a choice – you can change or not change and it is really up to you.

My old yoga teacher strongly encouraged all his students to do a daily yoga practice.  For a long time, I used to say, “I can’t, my children are too young, I’m not getting enough sleep, they always interrupt or need attention.”  The day that I changed my internal narrative to “I could do a daily yoga practice but I am choosing not to because I am prioritising time with my children and getting a bit more sleep in the mornings,” was the day I stopped arguing with myself and actually started doing the practice.

Once you have got the reasons not to change out of the way and acknowledged that the choice to change is yours to make or not as you see fit, then you can start to think about the benefits of changing.  What do you want to be different in your life?  Where are you heading now and where do you want to be heading?  How are your current actions or behaviour in conflict with your true values?

Whilst external rewards (such as giving yourself a treat when you stick to your plan or getting praise from others) can help to kick start a lifestyle change, the strongest motivation is internal motivation that is driven by your own values and your vision of the person you want to be.  Maybe you don’t want to be the kind of grandparent who can’t get down on the floor to play with the grandchildren.  You might not want to be a bad role model to your children by smoking in front of them.  Maybe you don’t want to be the sort of person who moans about their job but never does anything to change it.  Having a clear vision of how the track you are currently on is in conflict with your cherished values can be the very best motivation to change.

 

What Is Yoga?

imageMy regular readers will know that I have recently started a Yoga Teacher Training course with Universal Yoga.  The course is beautiful and I feel very privileged to have this opportunity.  It is also challenging on many levels – emotional, intellectual and physical.  By the end of the second weekend, my head was spinning from philosophy, teaching techniques and anatomy and physiology, and I had done more asana (physical poses), pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, mindful walking and chanting in a weekend than I believed could possibly be fitted in!

Our starting point was the seemingly simple question, what is yoga?  We examined dictionary definitions, definitions passed down the ages from the early yoga texts, and more modern descriptions from eminent yoga teachers, before moving onto our own personal definitions.  We all agreed that yoga is more than a set of exercises to do on your yoga mat each week, but what more it is seems personal.  Some of the group are very drawn to chanting and devotional yoga, while others are more drawn to secular mindfulness or strong physical practice.

For me, yoga is a set of tools that I can use to energise myself, maintain equanimity in difficult circumstances, stay healthy and find more joy in everyday life.  When I practice yoga every day, I feel different: lighter, looser, happier, less irritable, more focused and more compassionate.  It is hard to put my finger on exactly what is different, but other people notice it – my professional discussions go better, my family are more relaxed, I have more random conversations with strangers, and I pass less stress onto my team at work.

Many people are drawn to yoga for the physical benefits.  Through practising yoga, I have certainly become both more flexible and stronger.  It helps me cultivate stamina, since a vigorous set of sun salutations is definitely cardio-vascular.  Practising yoga with careful attention makes the poses safe; by learning how to come to my edge, and release with the breath, rather than forcing myself into a pose, I can practice without getting injured.  After a yoga practice or class, I may leave feeling energised and joyful, or calm and restored.

When I first practiced yoga, I thought of it as a mainly physical practice and I enjoyed challenging myself to achieve more difficult asanas.  I had enjoyed gymnastics as a child, even though I was never very good at it, and yoga just seemed like grown up gymnastics.  I got a kick out of being able to stand on my head, get my forehead to my shins and twist myself into the lotus.  Other benefits of yoga quickly started to creep up on me though.

As a university student, I experienced a lot of anxiety, and my Mum gave me her Sivananda yoga book.  I started a daily practice and this helped me to control my anxiety  by focusing on the present moment rather than my large, existential concerns.  Each pose is a moment of stillness and focus, of noticing what is happening in the body and remembering to breath slowly in each different shape.  Yoga means “to yoke” or “union” in Sanskrit, and one way to think of this is the bringing together of attention on breath, mind and body at a particularly moment in time.  I wasn’t aware of the concept of mindfulness at the time, but without anyone ever explaining it to me, the yoga asanas (postures) helped me to be more mindful in the present moment.

Through my twenties and thirties, I had periods of practising and periods of not, but in most of the more challenging periods of my life – relationship breakups, health issues, bereavement, job insecurity, starting a family – I have been drawn back to yoga.  My mat is my sanctuary, a place where I know I can find respite from whatever problems I have.  My pregnancy yoga teacher was particularly keen on teaching us how to breath through physical discomfort, and this is a skill to return to over and over in life.  When I come into the present moment on my mat and focus on my breath, I come back to my true self and find my inner strength.  Yoga reminds me that I am still alive, still breathing and quite safe in the present moment.

In fact, the present moment is not much short of a miracle – the collection of atoms and molecules that make up me will only be together for a very short time in the life of the universe, and here I am, experiencing my own version of consciousness right here today.  One day my atoms will no longer make up me anymore, but will mix up again with the rest of the universe = the period of time that they are configured as me is short indeed.

Yoga asanas are intended to release built-up prana (life force) and to help energy to flow smoothly through the body.  This can be experienced immediately after any asana, when a few moments inward exploration will reveal energy changes – there may be a calm release of tension or an uplifting, even euphoric lift of energy.  By choosing a balanced sequence of asanas, the overall practice leads to a balanced energy.  When I practice yoga in the morning, I feel energised and focused throughout my day.  If I don’t practice for a few days, I feel sluggish, slow and heavy.

Patanjali’s opening sutras can be translated as:

Now, the teachings of yoga.

Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.

Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature. (translated by Chip Hartranft)

Yoga is a way of bringing stillness to the mind, so that we can let go of all the conditioning we have experienced, the assumptions we make, the thought patterns we have developed and our habitual ways of telling stories about the world, ourselves and our relationships.  In letting go of all that, we can experience stillness and a sense of unity with the rest of the universe.

Patanjali describes this as the uniting of individual consciousness with the universal consciousness – recognising that they are the same.  Achieving this sounds like a lofty and esoteric ambition, and would probably put off many beginning yoga students who just want to feel healthier and calmer.  A little research into modern neuroscience also calls into question his dualist perspective.  Nevertheless, as we progress in yoga, we may more inclined to wonder what this self or consciousness that we experience really is and to experience it in more subtle ways through meditation.

We are constantly narrating stories about ourselves and world around us to ourselves.  Nowhere is this truer than on the yoga mat, where I may be thinking, “I can’t do this, my arms are too short”, “We’ve been in this pose for ages, has the teacher forgotten us?” “Look at me in this amazing, clever pose”, or “This meditation is so boring, when will the time be up?”  In noticing my own internal monologue, I can start to step back from it and be less enmeshed in my beliefs and assumptions.  I might notice my ego fluffing up, boredom setting in or my resistance to a physical sensation, and in noticing it, that story and the set of emotions that went with it lose their power.  So yoga becomes a way of not just enquiring about my physical abilities and limitations, but also a way of enquiring about my thought processes.

Occasionally in yoga, there are moments of real stillness when the monkey mind ceases it’s chatter and all is quiet.  In these moments, there is an experience of something that sits underneath all our thoughts – the self that witnesses all those mental events but does not become them.  Experiencing this self helps me to realise that I am not my emotions and thoughts – these are just events that happen to me. In this way, I become less attached to the things that I think I need and want.

Seeing all of life as an opportunity to learn more about myself and to loosen the bonds of attachment to the things I want can also help to get through difficult times.  I remember a particular time when a group of us in my workplace had our jobs downgraded.  This was, of course, a huge threat to my sense of self, my status and my position in the organisation. But, by thinking about it as an opportunity to learn about my attachment to these things and practice letting go, I could get through it with a little bit more grace.  I still wouldn’t say it was graceful, but probably a lot more graceful than it could have been.

There is also a moral code in yoga.  The Yamas and Niyamas which Patanjali outlines in the Sutras cover ethical principles that include non-harming, truthfulness and non- stealing.  Most yoga teachers do not discuss these moral principles in general interest classes, but I believe the practice of yoga naturally draws people towards a more thoughtful and compassionate lifestyle.  As my ego has softened, I naturally see myself as part of a large inter-connected universe.  Harm to one part of the universe is harm to the whole, and therefore to myself.

Although I have been vegetarian or longer than I have practised yoga, I find yoga increases my commitment to avoiding harm to animals and the environment.  It seems natural to be concerned about the well being of other people, animals and our planet.  Of course, I am very far from perfect, and I lead a normal Western lifestyle, so I am aware that I do have a negative impact on the planet.  It’s not always easy to make ethical choices (is imported soya in a plastic bag better or worse than free range eggs in a cardboard box?) and the great temptation is to give up on thinking about it altogether (often guilty, sadly).  Awareness is the first step towards taking some steps to minimise harm but this is a tough journey.

Yoga, and the increased self-awareness it brings, also leads to noting the impact of what I eat on my energy levels and general health.  Caffeine tends to give me headaches, so I try to avoid it, and sugar gives me an unbalanced energy that later leaves me with more cravings, so again, I try to minimise it (difficult because I don’t have a lot of willpower when there is a packet of biscuits in front of me).  Yoga helps me to mindfully enjoy food as a daily pleasure, without getting too drawn into either depriving myself or over-indulging.

So, if I had to sum it up, I would say yoga is like a secret super-power that enhances the good days and gets me though the bad days intact.  The teachings are a treasure chest of amazing tools, and we are lucky that there have been so many great teachers who have spread the word.

 

 

 

A Middle Path

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I am packing for the first weekend of my Yoga Teacher Training course! After months of planning the day has finally arrived. I am hoping the next year will bring spiritual enlightenment, an amazing sense of wellbeing, perfect health, great friends, beautifully performed asanas and maybe even the skills to teach. Not much then! I am excited, but now it is upon me, slightly nervous too.

I thought I was completely chilled about the level of asana that we will be doing. After all, good yoga is more about what is going on internally than the final position you achieve, right? My anxiety dream suggests otherwise; in my dream I am curled up on my yoga mat in class while some young and muscular thing performs incredible tumbling routines that have the teachers in raptures. Meanwhile I am still a blob lying on my mat. That was Monday’s dream anyway.

Age new perspectives in yoga.There is no longer any point in chasing difficult asanas; indeed, some poses that I used to be able to do are now frustratingly beyond my reach. In my twenties and thirties, the only yoga injury I sustained was a strained knee while I was pregnant. In my forties, I can pull a muscle in the simplest of poses. My body changes daily; what could do easily yeasterday can be a challenge today, and every pose has to be done with fresh awareness.

I am not really expecting to achieve any asanas that are more “advanced ” than those I can do already. If I learn to do my existing asanas with more insight and technique, that will be fine.

I find myself treading path between two different challenges.  On the one hand, I need to let go of my attachment to being able to do particular physical poses. There is no point in being competitive, even with myself.  Letting my ego drive my practice only leads to injury. Exploring each pose without expectations is a great lesson in non-attachment, but it is not always easy.

On the other hand, I don’t want to sell myself short by allowing self-limiting beliefs guide my practice.  If I am well warmed up I can take on some more challenging poses and I sometimes surprise myself with what I can do – a tricky balance, an inversion or a strenuous flow. Sometimes it is more about my state of mind than my flexibility. The middle path is a constant balancing act, and I fall off my tightrope pretty regularly.

Yet again, yoga provides a lesson that we can take to work as well. Getting very attached to goals, and then driving ourselves hard to achieve them is a sure recipe for stress and eventually health problems, especially if we forget to take care of ourselves. We skimp on sleep, exercise and relaxation, and ignore the warning signs. Being overly focussed on the goal means that we only see what is right in front of us; we miss the valuable information that is on the periphery of our awareness, and we might achieve the goal without ever questioning whether it was still the right goal.

On the other hand, self-limiting beliefs can keep us in our comfort zone. We tell ourselves that we can’t do things because we are too old/too young/not confident enough/not experienced enoug/not talented enough/too tired and we miss the chance to stretch and grow. We stick to the same old dull routine, and we tell ourselves it is all we are capable of.

So, this is the year of the middle path, not getting too attached to my goals, but allowing myself to be challenged and to stretch, and most of all enjoying the journey. I will let you know how it goes.

Snow Days – What Can They Teach Us?

 

In Britain, we have a strange custom known as “snow days”.  Since we have snow so rarely, we are entirely unprepared.  Once every few years, we have enough snow to make the roads treacherous, the trains unreliable and for the schools to close (since the teachers can’t get to work).  The snow rarely lasts more than a coupe of days, but while it does, it dominates the national conversation and throws everything into chaos.  We do not have four wheel drive, snow chains in our cars or grit on every steep hill.  There are not enough snow ploughs to clear every road and railway line.  Offices are quiet and people go out to play instead.

This year, my son had snow on his birthday for the first time, and it brought the unexpected gift of two days off school.  He, his brother, and their friends, took the their sledges to the nearest steep hill and spent happy mornings racing down the hill before coming home wet and cold for hot chocolate.  It was the best birthday present of all.

Meanwhile, I had two days of important back-to-back meetings planned, and a rare opportunity for a a Christmas meal with my colleagues from around Wales, which I was really looking forward too.  I was determined not to give up on my plans.  My car was buried in snow, and there is a steep hill at the end of our road, so I opted to take the train.  I arrived at the station to find no trains were running, since a tree was down over the line.  Fortunately the train from the opposite direction turned around, and I got to my first meeting.  My colleague was not so lucky – she did not arrive until mid-afternoon.  After the meeting, I headed to the station for my onward journey, stepping with care since the pavements were so icy.  The delayed afternoon trains were still showing as not arrived, which did not fill me with confidence.  With much reluctance, I gave up on my social event, and felt lucky to make it home.  The closest I got to my meal was a running commentary of everyone’s journeys on Whats App.

The next day, I Skyped into my meeting – a lesson learnt.

So, what do snow days have to teach us?

  • Non-attachment – on a snow day, it doesn’t pay to be too attached to your plans.  You need to be willing to let go of them gracefully.
  • Compassion and connection – people say hello to each other and help each other out.  People check on their neighbours, they talk to each other about transport delays, they help each other clear the snow from the pavements, they smile in the street.  Everyone seems friendlier.
  • See the world with fresh eyes – everything looks different in the snow.  You can take time to see how things are right now in the present moment, rather than carry out your journey on auto-pilot.
  • Remember how to play – build a snow man, go sledging, have a snowball fight!
  • Think flexibly – is there another way of connecting to people?  Do you really need to travel? Could you try working from home?
  • Enjoy some welcome rest – if you end up staying home because the kids are off school or you cannot get to work, make the most of the time by snuggling up and getting cosy.  This is a time of year when we could usually use a bit of extra time to relax and refresh ourselves.
  • Gratitude! Having to do without a few things can help us appreciate what we do have – all those days when we have access to good transport, electricity, warmth, childcare, simple routines.

Ten Career Coaching Rules That Worked for Me

This time last year I was feeling a bit stuck in my career.  Now, as a careers professional, that is not always a great admission.  Surely we should be able to apply our skills to ourselves and get ourselves out of any career ruts we might briefly fall into?  Doctor, heal thyself, as they say.

My difficulty was that I actually liked my job.  It was varied, creative, autonomous, collaborative, and gave me the work-life balance that I want.  I very rarely saw other jobs advertised which looked better.  But I had been doing this job for a while, and it had lost the freshness and excitement it once had.  I didn’t necessarily want to get another job, I just wanted to re-discover my spark.

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I decided to make 2017 a year of change.  So, in a bid to see which career coaching approaches might actually work for me, I picked out a few of the most buzzy, enticing career books, all promising to help me re-invent my working life, follow my dream or achieve career success.  I followed their rules to see what would happen, and low and behold, I did actually make some real changes as a result.  I am still in the same job, but I am also involved a dream professional project – writing a book – with a much admired colleague, I am about to pursue another lifelong dream of doing a yoga teacher training course at the weekends  – and I am doing more of the things that I really enjoy when I am in work.

Of course, it is not all perfect, and I am still at the mercy of those regular restructures which seem to be a feature of the public sector these days, but I now feel I have other options and am developing some lines of work that could create new possibilities (a portfolio career, perhaps).

So which career coaching rules really did make a difference for me?

  • Meditate a lot – it’s a not necessarily a rule that many career coaches would use, but things did become much clearer for me through meditation.  One day I just sat down and what I needed to do next was absolutely clear.
  • See what you can do in just ten minutes a day that will plant seeds for the the future.  This is a great tip for the time poor, because we can all find ten minutes a day.  For me, the ten minutes was writing this blog.
  • Nurture quality over quantity in your professional network.  Take the trouble to keep in touch with the people you really click with, because these are the people that you will do your best professional projects with.  My dream project came from someone I know pretty well, but hadn’t seen in quite a while – getting back in touch was the best thing I could have done.
  • Take the trouble to give sincere appreciation to all the people who have inspired and mentored you over the years; people like to be appreciated and these are the people who are most likely to give you more help and inspiration in the future.
  • Tell people, even when you have to grit your teeth to do it, if they have done something well that you admire.  It is easy to praise people when you have a good relationship, but not so easy when they are the one person you seem to be constantly in conflict with. This simple tip massively improved one of my most difficult and furstrating work relationships.
  • Identify the tasks that you want to do with your heart and soul (you would even do them for free or at the weekends), and then identify the tasks which you really only do because you have to (the ones that sap your energy more than they should).  Keep focused on the tasks you love and try to move towards them there were you can.
  • Analyse your working week and identify which tasks you really enjoy, which tasks have impact and where you waste time on low value activities.  Work out how you can do more of what you enjoy, the tasks that really makes a difference, and do less of the work that drains you.  For me, that was learning to delegate better so I could do more training and client-facing work.  I was lucky that I had enough autonomy to be able to do this, but many managers would be supportive if they could see how it was in the best interests of the business too.
  • Practice gratitude.  Instead of thinking about all the things that are wrong with your current job, make a point of being grateful for all the good things.  Quit moaning, because it just reinforces negativity!
  • Get over expecting to control the future.  You can’t – it is too complex and to unknowable.  There are always going to be surprises and you can’t always know what is around the corner. So, focus on what is front of you, do it with care and enthusiasm, take whatever reasonable precautions you can, take some risks and don’t worry so much.  This is a tough one, and I am still working on it!

These are the tips that worked for me.  They won’t necessarily work for you, because everyone’s situation is different.  I had to try quite a few different things and not all of them helped.  But the more changes you try on for size, the more likely you are to find the ones that really makes a difference.

 

 

 

Parental Pressure

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Parental expectations can be both a curse and a blessing.  On the one hand, when our parents believe in us and encourage us to achieve our best, we may feel more motivated, and carry that sense of self-belief and determination to succeed with us throughout life.  But on the other hand, the weight of parental expectations can become unbearable if we feel we cannot satisfy them.

A colleague asked me for ideas today to help a client who was under a lot of pressure from her parents to succeed academically, but was just not very academically able.  This is always going to be a difficult issue to resolve, and there is a danger that the young person will be left with a lasting sense of failure or inadequacy.  They may find themselves on a course that they are not able succeed with, and this can only lead to a sense of barely being good enough or being an outright failure.

Most parents only want the best for their child.  They worry that in this increasingly anxious world, only those who succeed academically will be able to get the jobs that will provide security and pay well enough to make a living or get a foot on the property ladder.  The worried parent may see poor academic grades as sign that their child is going to struggle to be happy, and see university and the professions as the best way to ward off a life of poverty and unhappiness.

Of course, there are other parents who perhaps have less benign reasons for wanting their child to succeed.  They may see their child’s achievements (or lack of them) as a reflection of their own worth; the parent may be seeking to boost their ego by achieving vicariously through their child; and may be so bound up in their child’s achievements that they cannot see that this may not be in the child’s best interests.

Parents are hugely influential on their teenagers, even if the teenagers at times would have us believe otherwise.  If parents have spent that last ten years talking about university and the professions, the majority of young people will follow that route, even when there may be excellent apprenticeship opportunities that would suit them better.  And when a young person just lacks the academic ability that is requited, there is danger that they will find themselves on an A-Level programme that they are ill-suited to.  They may achieve grades that give them a very restricted choice of university courses (if they make it to the end of the course at all).

Alternatively, they may be brought up short by low GCSE grades, and find themselves drifting without a plan.  If they are given the right support at this time, they could start a vocational course or apprenticeship which will give them every change of succeeding with a trade or skilled job.  The parents, however, may not know about these alternatives and may be ill-equipped to help their child at this important time.

My first thought in this situation is that, as career professionals, we need to do more work with parents (as long as the young person is happy with this course of action).  A session with the parents and young person together could help the parents to get a better understanding of their child’s strengths and challenges, and the wide range of post-sixteen options available.  The presence of the Careers Adviser is likely to keep the atmosphere calm and everyone focused on the task of finding the best way forwards.

If this is not possible, then the Career Adviser will need to work with the young person to help them prepare to tackle this potentially difficult conversation with their parents.  Rehearsing the conversation may help the young person think about what they need to say and keep calm if things get emotional.  The young person will feel more prepared for this conversation if they have an alternative plan and an awareness of all their options.

If you are a young person in this situation yourself, you will need to explore what opportunities might suit your abilities and strengths.   Perhaps you could train to be a carpenter, study computing or business studies at college, set up your own online business,  travel the world as a flight attendant, become a circus performer, work for a charity, keep bees or become a product designer.  The possibilities really are endless.

It is worth bearing in mind that there are “multiple intelligences“.  If you are not academic, your abilities are different rather than inferior.  You almost certainly have other talents. Find some good role models to inspire you  – people who have succeeded in non-academic routes and gone on to make a great contribution to society.

It is also important to build resilience by developing the tools to challenge negative thought processes.  For example, if  you are prone to saying “I’m not good enough”, and then feeling sad, you can learn to recognise this thought pattern and replace it with a more balanced thought – “I am not so good at written work and I do much better with practical tasks. I am still a good person with lots to offer.” Of course, the thought has to be something believable, otherwise it won’t work.

Re framing failure as feedback can also bring about a change in attitude.  When we fail, if we look on the event as feedback about where we are at a particular point in time, we can use it as a learning experience.  Failing Maths GCSE can be interpreted as “I’m not ready for that yet,” rather than “I am awful at Maths (and always will be)”.   If we cultivate a growth mindset, we can remind ourselves that our abilities are not fixed and may change over time as we practice our skills and have new experiences.  There are many people who go on to become entrepreneurs, skilled professionals or craftspeople, and many more who go back to academic study later in life and find they can learn the subjects that they struggled with at school because they are just more ready.