On the eve of World Mental Health day I’m going to share my own experience. For too long I have felt the need to keep up a ‘corporate’ persona both in my research career and now with my own business. There’s enormous pressure to be seen as ‘together’, professional, knowledgeable; but at the end of the day we are all…. HUMAN.
Mental health is a spectrum. We all have good and bad days, and when lots of bad days follow each other we plunge into a downward spiral which is increasingly difficult to get out of.
There have been times when I was close to breakdown. In fact thinking back I probably hit breaking point but I was too afraid of the stigma of being signed off work with stress to get proper help. I was chronically stressed. I had two young children and a demanding part time job. Looking back it was my desire for perfectionism, dressed up in a belief that I had to please everyone, that led me to take on too much and not look after myself.
It came to a head one day when I was working from home (on one of my days off) and I was running out of time trying to finish a proposal knowing that I had a black tie do to get ready for that evening. I collapsed in a sobbing heap knowing that I couldn’t do it all anymore. It filled me with shame at the time that my husband had to call my boss to explain. And he was brilliant (both my boss and my husband were!)
It can be so difficult to ask for help. So many ‘shoulds’ get in the way.
I should be able to do this.
I should have enough time.
I should be doing this, it’s part of my job.
Everyone works overtime, it’s only fair that I should too.
My ‘shoulds’ got in the way of the boundaries I needed to keep my life in balance.
It’s easy to blame others but I now think you have to have a very clear idea of your own values in order to see what’s truly important. And I don’t mean principles driven by family or societal expectations of what is ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘valued’. I mean you have to work out what is good for your own unique self. To be honest I think that this is a lifelong journey, but very much worth investigating and this is something I love to do with my coaching clients. Your true values, once you find them, become the rudder with which you steer your ship through stormy waters.
Being diagnosed with cancer in 2017 was (as strange as it seems) in many ways a blessing as it threw things into sharp relief and made me question my unhelpful beliefs. It forced me to slow down and take a step back. It gives me a new appreciation of my body as it gets healthier and stronger. It has, of course, also given me some dark days. Losing my hair to chemotherapy, unpleasant symptoms from enforced menopause and confronting my own and my loved ones’ mortality has been painful at times. But it has also given me more courage to have difficult conversations and to feel the closer connection that inevitably stems from these.
We all have negative thoughts every day, but I have found a new freedom in knowing that I don’t have to honour every thought. I can choose to pay attention to the thoughts that support my values and try my best to ignore the ones which are out to sabotage me!
Does expressing my frailties and imperfections make me less effective as a coach?
I don’t think so.
In fact when I am coaching at my peak I lose sense of my ‘self’. I listen so intently that all my internal chatter ceases and I can really hear the beautiful real person who is talking to me. It is a privilege to be able to pick up on all the additional cues such as their tone of voice, the language they use, the way they sit or move their hands. I am able to focus on reflecting back their words, and on gently challenging the assumptions they are making – helping them to see themselves in a different light with new possibilities.
Of course there is no answer to avoiding mental health challenges but there are three things that I have found helpful to have fewer bad days:
- Look after your body. Eat well, drink less, move more, sleep more. Numbing strategies dull the joy as well as the pain.
- Take responsibility. Blaming circumstances or other people makes you lose all power. Focus on what is in your control.
- Seek out constructive connection. Talking is good but ultimately not helpful when it descends into fruitless moaning (believe me, I’ve done a lot of it!) or when someone is trying to ‘fix’ you. You’re not broken. You just need to figure out what you need and ask for help.