Reflections on life

THE STRAIGHT JACKET OF SELF DOUBT.

Looking back, there were many times when lack of belief in myself made a lasting impact on my life, and not least when I was coming towards the end of my five years at boarding school. I’d arrived at thirteen, from a country life of considerable freedom, and the culture shock was huge. Discipline was rigid, and hierarchy was enforced, you started out as nobody. I proved to have little aptitude for learning, at least from the way we were taught then, and felt that I was ending my time there much as I had begun, as a nobody.

Except for drama. I loved drama, I was in every play and for me the school’s one redeeming feature was that there were plenty. I came alive in every role and it was easy, I just knew that person and felt them. So drama college would have been an obvious choice, but I never even considered it. My parents had put all their faith and a lot of money into my education and acting was a risky profession. I couldn’t tell them what I wanted, because I might never be good enough to succeed as an actress, and I’d let them down. So to the delight of my mother I dutifully trudged off to catering college.

Some time later, after ten years in our family business, I left to see what it was like out there in the working world. I got a good job and worked incredibly hard setting up a new company. But year three didn’t meet financial expectations and I was fired, and applying for any job that came up, during a recession. So I was excited to come across something I knew I’d love to do, had the skills for, and was well paid. I was interviewed twice, and then called in for a third, with the managing director. 

A previous interviewer was kind enough to tip me off that I was the favourite, so I needed to do my homework on every aspect of the company and come prepared, because he’d ask. He did, I waffled, he was irritated. Soon I was back out in the street asking myself how that happened. Then I buried it, just one more that didn’t work out. Oh, how much we bury.

Years later I understood that although I’d really wanted that job and knew I could do it, at a subconscious level I didn’t believe I was good enough to be chosen. So I sabotaged my chances by not preparing well enough. It must have felt safer to stay within the confines of my own limited expectations than to imagine that I was allowed to do really well. And looking back, I recognised the same in some promising candidates I interviewed in my time too, and couldn’t understand why they failed to shine when it really mattered.

When we first met, my step daughter was fourteen, friction between us soon became well established, and most attempts by me to bridge the gap seemed to fail. I tried too hard, wanted too anxiously to be a good parent, and felt frustrated and inadequate.

A few years later there were fewer confrontations but there was still  something of a distance between us. One evening I was upstairs when she knocked and came in, sobbing, and saying – “I’m so sorry, I never really meant any of it…”

Recently she’d made a new friend and was asked lots of questions about her mother who had died quite suddenly when she was nine. What had been shut down began to open, and she was able to allow the grief bottled up inside to come up into the light. Raw and vulnerable, I was where she wanted to be to cry, to let go of the battle and allow love in. 

I’d always been so quick to assume responsibility and take on the failure. I could have done more, differently, better… And actually it wasn’t even about me, I just occupied a space where the mother she missed had been. She’d done the best she could to cope with profound loss, closing it down, and what was needed was time. I could never be her mother, but she loved who I was, and that freed me from five years of gnawing self doubt. We didn’t remain in constant harmony, but it was a milestone.

I returned to the family business after a few years away, and eventually bought part of it from my brother, and started my own retail company. It was tremendously exciting and I became obsessed with every little detail of its creation. Eight years later I found myself sitting in a grey little office every day, doing what I thought of as the boring stuff. I was fifty nine and I’d given all the interesting jobs to my young and enthusiastic staff.

We were always busy, and were outwardly successful. It was a truly beautiful shop, and my focus was less on the balance sheet and more on the aesthetics. I had to have perfection, whatever it cost. With hindsight, I invested too much of my heart and passion into it, and not enough objectivity, because my life outside work was less than fulfilling. But I wasn’t able to acknowledge that, everything was fine.

Because it was my business, and all the staff were at least half my age, it must have felt too daunting for them to challenge me, so I was unchecked. And the huge loan I’d taken out to buy the property was never chiselled away. Eventually I found myself between a rock and a hard place, refusing to let go of my idealism and fighting to pay the bills. 

By chance, a business consultant from a local university offered me a free consultation, and I wearily accepted. It was summer time and I thought, well, at least I’ll get to sit outside with him for half an hour. The shop had originally been part of an old timber mill and there were terraces by the riverside. He was an amiable and kindly man, but I didn’t think that would last long once I’d shown him the accounts.

“So, it doesn’t look too good, but it’s not impossible. I can help you to do a full review and find ways…” He saw my face and stopped. I’d been through so many business reviews in my working life and I just couldn’t muster the energy for another. “Well then, sell it” he said, lightly.

I was stunned. Everything in me reared up and resisted the very idea. Who would want it, with the books the way they were? “Look around you, what you’ve got to sell is beautiful, in a wonderful location. That’s what other people would be buying, and they would turn it around, and make it pay.” I could hardly take it in because every other responsibility I felt was rising up to be heard. I’d grown up in this building, my family was rooted in it, I’d spent most of my lifetime as part of it, how could I sell that? And my staff, how could I abandon them? How would it affect everybody else?

He chatted on encouragingly whilst my thoughts whirled in confusion. After he’d gone I went back to the grey little office and realised that the whirling inside me was becoming wild excitement. If I took this leap out of my self imposed slavery to being responsible for everything and everyone else, I could know freedom. I was afraid, and overwhelmed by all the implications of allowing myself to do what I’d never known how to do before. But the excitement won, and by the end of the afternoon I knew I would sell.

It was the catalyst for total revolution. Two years later I’d left everything I knew behind, work, family, friends, and home, and was starting afresh in Italy, alone. I had no idea what kind of life I would make, but knew that I would write, eventually. Eleven years on, and I’ve had the time and space to allow the buried stuff in my life to surface, showing me the roots of my doubts and fears, and how and why things played out the way they did. And for now, it’s what I want to write, my life.

That friendly man approached what felt like a massive, shameful burden to me without judgement. He showed me that this was not, as I saw it, a disaster waiting to happen, it could also be an opportunity. And it turned my life around. Maybe sharing my experiences as honestly as I can may also let in some light, and open a way forward, for others.

Self doubt can cripple our potential to allow change. I left it very late, and made up for it with a huge leap, taking everyone by surprise, including myself. Although there have been really challenging times, I’ve not one regret. Few would want to uproot as radically as I have, it was simply what suited me. But small changes can be just as life enhancing, and we’re here to be as happy as we can. If parts of your life feel grey, perhaps you won’t leave your longings unattended as long as I did. But if you already have, it’s never too late!

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