Thanks 2021 ... Hello 2022
I think we can all agree that 2021 has been yet another tough year. There have been many of us experiencing challenges that affect our health. Lockdowns. Isolations. Illness. And in some cases, even losing loved ones. And there's been the knock on effect of living through a pandemic: loss of work, loss of business, loss of freedom, loss of close relationships. Understandably for many, this will not be a time they want to reflect on, so why am I starting the new year off doing exactly that?
When I was training as a teacher, one of the most important tools I was introduced to was the practice of critical reflection. When I say critical, I don’t mean judgemental. It wasn't about shaming ourselves at all but looking back with an observant eye. What went well during that lesson? What didn’t go so well, and if that's the case, what would I do differently next time so that it can go better? What do we need to work on more?
It’s hard to begin with, don’t get me wrong, and quite a chore to constantly stop and reflect on what you've done already when you have a ton of other things you need to do too. But it did mean that as a teacher, you were more focused and productive, and the learning was being tailored to the children's needs which ultimately meant they were more successful too.
And I think that applies to general life too.
If we take the time to reflect on what is working for us in life and what hasn't been working so well, we can celebrate those little wins and make appropriate changes where needed. And although it may feel a little uncomfortable, frustrating even, it does mean that we have the potential to become more focused and productive as we go forward, because we are fully aware of what our needs are.
For a number of years, I've struggled with this idea of stopping and reflecting whilst being a mum, even when it's been advised in therapy. The overwhelm of balancing three young children meant that taking the time to pause felt impossible and often made me feel irritable with anxiety. But this year, something changed. Perhaps it was my third round of CBT, or the hypnotherapy at the start of the year or the coaching membership I've been involved in recently - maybe it's even a combination of all three that has reminded me of the tools I already have whilst teaching me new ones too.
What I am sure of is that I began 2021 in a very bad place mentally, and I'm finishing it ready to attack 2022, with plans and goals and a vision of what it is I am aiming for in all areas. I've found my way back to the values and tools that were an embedded part of my life before children, but were forgotten the second my first baby was born. How does that happen?
Of course, mental health is not a linear journey. It's rocky and full of peaks and troughs, so it is inevitable that some days are still tougher than others. Expecting that to change will only lead to shame and disappointment if I do revert back to old thinking patterns, when what is needed is compassion and understanding. But vitally there is now an awareness of the role I can play in helping myself, in controlling my own life, and managing the unpredictable nature that comes with family life and life in general.
Three of the main things 2021 has taught me:
Saying 'NO' now is much easier than saying 'YES' and being angry later
Are you a people pleaser?
Yep, me too!
It feels uncomfortable to say no to someone doesn't it? I find it reaaaaaally hard to say no, even when I am dead set against what I am being asked to do. I frequently find myself being pulled from pillar to post trying to not upset anyone by saying no, and the anxiety and tension begins to build up in my own body. Like a volcano, the anger bubbles and rises under the service and then...BOOM! I explode. You know what I mean, right? I throw my toys out of the pram. I scream. I shout. I slam doors and half throw things rather than placing them gently. And it always comes as a complete shock to everyone… but not to me. I've been feeling it there in the tightening of my chest, the turning of my stomach and the resentful thoughts on my mind for much longer than they know.
What I have realised is that these feelings arise because I'm not listening to my own needs and being authentic when I say 'Yes'. Of course, we all have to do things sometimes that we don't want to do, or we prioritise others over our own needs at times. As mums, we do it at various times throughout the day. But it is those times when I consistently ignore my own needs that the anger builds. Sometimes I think I'm angry that no one else thinks about what I may need, and I am waiting for someone to offer to take over for a moment but I realise that when I feel angry with others for appearing to be oblivious to my needs, that I too am ignoring my needs when I say 'Yes' begrudgingly.
So as much as it may feel as though I am being rude or unkind when I say 'No' to someone, I have begun to remind myself that to say 'No' now is actually kinder than saying 'Yes' and then becoming angry and resentful about it afterwards.
No one else values my needs as much as I do, and I cannot expect others to prioritise me when I don't even prioritise myself. Saying 'No' to others is not always about ignoring their needs but actually about fulfilling my own.
The importance of goal setting
One thing I didn't realise played such a central role to my mental well-being was goal setting. How many of us had clear goals whilst at school or at work and then stop setting them when we become a mum? One day rolls into the next. There is a limited sense of achievement and some of the things we think of doing for ourselves or with our little people remain on our wish list but never actually get done.
But who said we cannot set ourselves goals in motherhood as we would when studying for an exam or at work?
For me now, a goal may be painting my nails once a week, learning something new whilst the little one naps, taking the children to a particular attraction in the summer holidays, or even just cooking a full roast dinner on a Sunday. Whatever it may be, saying I want to do it is not enough. There needs to be a time frame (with some flexibility of course) and a plan for completing it in the same way I would plan for an exam or lesson observation. And the sense of achievement that follows when a goal is met can only inspire more goals to be set and plans to be made because I have actually taken the reigns and followed through rather than waiting for something to just happen.
Learn to sooth yourself
My last therapist said this to me on a number of occasions and to be fair, I'm still not entirely sure how to do this all the time.
If you are like me, you often feel like you need someone else to sooth you in those moments of anxiety and low moods. If something isn't going right, you want someone to hold you and tell you it is all going to work out fine. And if someone is unkind, you seek reassurance that their behaviour is not a representation of your worth, hoping for them to change their behaviour to settle your emotions rather than finding a way to calm yourself irrelevant of what the other person is doing or saying. Similarly, as mentioned earlier, there's a craving for someone to see you as a priority, and give you permission to care for yourself.
WE NEED TO STOP GIVING ALL OF THAT POWER TO SOMEBODY ELSE!
I know now that I need to start accepting that I have no control over the choices others make, or the curve ball life throws at us sometimes, and I need to separate those moments from what I define as my worth because the two are actually not related. My children jumping on the sofa when I've reminded them that 'the floor is for jumping and the sofa is for sitting' ten times, is not a representation of my worth as a mum. My ability to fit into my pre-baby jeans is not a representation of my worth as a woman. My ability to get my children to school on time every day does not represent my worth as a human being. And I am not worth more on the days I leave the house in my favourite outfit with my hair and make-up done than on the days I leave in running clothes and bare skin.
And when something does upset me, it is important that I find a way of comforting myself and showing myself compassion rather than relying on others. A cup of tea. A hot bath. Ten minutes of yoga or meditation. Dancing it out. There are lots of different options, and from what I have found out so far, finding something that works can vary depending on the situation and emotions involved. The important thing is that the journey to finding my own methods of soothing has begun, giving me yet another way of having more control over my life and my well-being.
One final note on reflection
As a teacher, critical reflection was really useful for the end of each lesson but it was also a tool I used throughout the sessions too, because believe me, there is no point in trying to plough on through a lesson plan if your learners are still struggling with the starter. It’s important to keep checking in, keep assessing and if need be, change the plan in the moment.
And we can do that in life too… Let's not wait for the year to end, or the month, or even the day. Let's keep noticing our achievements, our struggles and our needs in the moment and if something doesn’t feel right, let's change it there and then, and make the most of the time we have.