Learning to listen to the itch & loosen your grip on life
I've had an itch in my pants for most, if not all, my adult life. No not that kind of itch. The kind that a cream can't satisfy. The kind where despite having a very satisfactory life and stable career, deep down inside the very fabric of your being there is something crying out for more. More variety, more adventure, more depth, more passion, more meaning...more of everything.
But I ignored the itch. I thought, "If everyone else can be happy plodding along, why can't I?". I worked hard, I got promoted, I went on lovely holidays, I plodded. But I still itched. And I felt very envious of those feeling satisfied with plodding. There is a lot to be said to be grateful and content with your lot in life, as Chief Business Officer, at Google Mo Gawdat has been saying recently.
But then a good friend of mine committed suicide. Words cannot express how terrible that was (and still is) for everyone who knew her. It really drew my attention to the itch. Big time.
Her death inspired me to start listening to it and do something about it. It sounds cliched but I realised that life really can be short and seriously chuffing hard. And that it's not enough for me to just plod.
So I started volunteering one evening a week. I became a trained youth mentor for Centrepoint - a fantastic charity which helps young homeless people. I was lucky enough to have a 2 month sabbatical where I lived in a hippy commune for a month. I made art, I made new friends, I hiked, I watched the sunsets, I danced, I sweated in an Indian sweat lodge. And then I road-tripped around around California. It was an incredibly inspiring experience.
I got home and I still itched. I knew that I had to find a way to make more space in my life for these things. The things which really made me feel passionate about life. The things which make the hairs on my arms stick up with excitement. The things which burn that fire in your belly.
But I was scared. And when I am scared I hold tight on to the things I have which are certain in life. I gripped tightly onto my job and the idea of what I 'should' be doing at 30. I judged myself against all my friends who were starting to get married and have babies. I judged myself against my parents who kept nagging me to invest in a property and to just be happy with things as they were.
I ignored the itch again because I thought that gripping onto the pursuit of these concepts was the right thing to do. I took a new job and started dating someone I really liked thinking that either of these things would be the cure-all. They weren't.
In fact a series things went tits up across my life in the space of just a few months. On their own these would have been manageable but trying to deal with these together with that long-term itchy feeling proved too much for me to handle.
I went through about six very dark, anxious and depressed months. I wasn't sleeping. I felt trapped...like a tube of toothpaste being squeezed at both ends. And most of all I was scared. Scared about feeling these things, scared that what I was trying to grip onto wasn't working no matter how tightly I held on to them. Scared of making any changes. Scared of how it would look to other people if I let go, 'gave up' and walked in a different direction.
When I started having panic attacks I knew I had to make a change. Hyperventilating on the way to work while sobbing down the phone uncontrollably to my friend Helen was no way to live a life. (Thanks for the unwavering support Helen).
So I made a plan. I stuck the job out until I completed on a flat. Because making a secure investment while I could get a mortgage seemed like a sensible thing to do for the long-term. Sigh. Then I quit and became a contractor. Mixing work with my old job (who have been lovely enough to have work and time for me) with other projects, regular volunteering and most importantly, regular adventures.
Interestingly, the minute I stopped gripping onto what I thought I should be doing, the more interesting opportunities which felt right came my way. The last two years of my life have been so satisfying and stimulating but only because I let go.
I've been fortunate enough to: spend time working with my old colleagues (who I adore), join in on exciting new independent projects with other people I love, going to leading events in my professional industry, spent a month in Myanmar (Burma), numerous holidays, regular conservation volunteering work, helping my friends with their kids and last-minute getaways, a drama therapy teaching course....And I am currently typing this up on the tail-end of a 3 month stint in San Francisco - it's been a long held dream of mine to live there for a bit since my sabbatical in 2014 (big thanks to those who gave me this opportunity).
I cannot say how grateful I am to have been able to experience all of these things. And to that itch for continuing to push me forwards to a way of life which felt right for me at this juncture in my life. And to that awful 6 months of misery for being the huge kick up the ass I needed to make changes.
But the point of this post wasn't to brag. Honest. It was to say that over the last few years I have learnt that it's very important to:
- Listen to your itch
- Make time in your life for whatever fills you with excitement and joy, even if everyone else thinks you are bonkers
- Accept that life will kick you in the crotch several times and push you into a very dark corner as a way to force you into taking risks, which more often than not, turn out for the best
- Stop measuring yourself against others - what is right for someone else is not right for you, and visa versa
- Not under-estimate the value of working hard and being nice - it will pay dividends
- Remember that if something is meant to happen, it will find a way - no matter how complicated it may seem. Life and the universe has a way of working this shiz out.
- Put the positive energy back out there
And perhaps most of all...let go. It's only by loosening our tightly-held grip on things which don't feel quite right for us an individuals that we can create space for bigger, better, more right things.
A paragraph from my favourite poem by the Hopi Indians summarises this lesson nicely:
"There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly.
"Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate."
Of course, the journey is not over - because it never is until we die. There are still ups, downs, moments of wondrous brilliance and big old kicks in the crotch. The difference is after the last few years and these lessons, I certainly feel far better equipped emotionally and mentally to deal with whatever may be down the path. And hopefully if you feel the need to let go, and do...you will too xxx