As one of the champions of our Third Metric strategy – the HuffPost’s drive against burnout, to seek out less stress, and a sustainable way of living your life that involves wellbeing as well as money and power – you’d think I have it sussed.
I meditate, I practice yoga and I’m pretty good at turning my email off at weekends without a faint trace of guilt.
But like a lot of people, life’s many ups and downs have taken their toll; I have simply reached a point where I’m not dealing with things very well. Frankly, I’d like to try a different approach to how I handle stress because my current strategy is not working.
I’m lucky in that I work in a field where I have access to different sorts of therapies and theories on how to manage stress or unhappiness. But it doesn’t make asking for help that much easier.
And, like a lot of fellow Brits, I can be cynical when it comes to the ‘tapping into your emotions’ theology.
But there is one couple getting the balance right: founders of Fuck It Therapy, ex-Londoner John Parkin and his wife Gaia, are able to teach people how let go of the things that upset them.
John and Gaia are based in Italy where they run amazing retreats, but they also do weekends in London and Dublin that are a cheaper taster of what they can do.
Gaia’s special knack has been called her ‘magic frequency’. If that sounds too hippie-ish for your tastes, believe me I’ve been there, but having completed a weekend, I totally get it.
We started off sitting in a circle, each of us a bit aloof (maybe they’re worrying about being hugged too). But then Gaia began to talk, and it was like someone is saying all of the things I’d been holding in my head, but had been unable to express.
The biggest learning was Gaia's talk around the idea of primary selves.
"They are usually formed in times of survival or when you need protecting, so whether you identify as a perfectionist, the helper, the nice person, the altruistic one, the spontaneous person – these are all personas that helped you get through something, at some time."
The problem with primary selves, especially if you identify as being the person who helps a lot or sorts things out for other people, is that while they are nice characteristics to have, if you feel you have to be like that all the time, it can be utterly suffocating.
“You’re then stuck in what other people’s perceptions of you are,” said Gaia, “when the truth is that it is only a small part of you.”
Who we are as a whole is much bigger, she said, and that is crucial to how you handle things like sadness, upset or resentment.
The minute you realise that you don’t always have to put aside your own needs to help other people (because you really will go mad) and that you can be other things, whoof! It's very liberating.
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What I experienced in the two days is too big to write in one feature, so I’ll explain the two big things that made a lasting impression.
The first was figuring out what my primary selves were.
“Write down a list of six qualities,” Gaia said, “as if you were going for a job interview.”
Then Gaia asked us to think of a person, either someone we dislike in our lives, or someone famous like a politician. “Now write down six characteristics they have that you don’t like,” she said.
Once the list was done, Gaia asked us to read what we had down, and so we did. For a lot of us, responsibility, hard working and kindness seemed to be common qualities.
“Now read the second list,” said Gaia, “but say ‘I am’ in front of each quality.”
This may not sound hard, but it really is. I struggled to get the words out.
This, Gaia told us, reveals a lot about ourselves. “When we form our primary selves, the opposites have to be shut away because we don’t like those qualities. They become our disowned selves.”
You may not think this is a bad thing, but -
“Even the beautiful stuff – the qualities you like – if it’s fixed, if we think we have to be like that all the time, we’re in trouble. It makes us think we are nice people, but if I have to be intelligent or kind all the time, it’s exhausting. If you’re flexible all the time, people will walk all over you. These parts are a choice, not an obligation. They are only parts of you, not the definition of who you are.”
The second big reveal came the following day. After some energy work in the morning – we were moving around and doing deep breathing which had some people yelling like maniacs as their ‘energies’ were being released – I had decided that it was not my thing and was ready to leave.
I’m very glad that I didn’t.
We moved on to deep breathing which involved pairing up with someone who had done it before. The idea was that you lie down, and start breathing deeply, creating a circular motion with your breath.
“It can affect people quite deeply,” Gaia said. “If an emotion comes up, just lean into it, acknowledge it is there and rest in it.”
The other person helps you by whispering if you need to breathe more deeply, can sometimes press your feet or your shoulders.
I wasn't quite sure how I felt about that, but I paired up with Kate who helps out at John and Gaia’s retreats, and something about her represented safety to me. (I don’t know why – it may have been her fluffy slippers).
I lay there, wondering how on earth deep breathing was going to help me, when after an indefinite length of time, I started thinking of things I haven’t thought of for years – it was a lot of sadness, but it felt like really old sadness.
Then I felt angry, and then I – embarrassingly – burst into tears. Apparently this happens a lot. It felt like a really good, cleansing cry though – like clearing out my cupboards.
At that point, when I was really getting into it, one lady started wailing really loudly and my god, it put me off.
As if sensing my discomfort, Gaia came over and whispered some words in my ear, and then it just started flowing again.
My sadness passed, my anger passed, and what was left behind was the realisation that as bad as feeling bad is, it never lasts forever (even though we think it will).
Also - we get so caught up in the type of people we currently are at the moment, that we forget the people we once were or used to be. Classic example: people who have teenagers completely forget what they were like at that age. We assume we get broken by our horrible experiences, but really, that isn’t the case. They affect and change us, sure, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t still tap into the things that make us happy.
At the end of the two days, I felt utterly exhausted. Who knew lying down in a mound of blankets could be so challenging? But although I was mentally drained, when I woke up on Monday morning, I felt strong and prepared to take anything head on.
I’m not so naive to think that this radically fixes everything – in fact Gaia actually addresses this by saying: “This isn’t about fixing yourself, but gaining a better understanding of how and why you work.”
I feel infinitely more peaceful. And surely, being okay with yourself is half, if not most of the battle?