Okay, it's a bit of a cliché, but money and power are still arguably the two most widely recognised characteristics of success, certainly in our capitalist society. In fact, many of us spend the best years of our lives chasing these 'desirable' characteristics and gathering the possessions that prove beyond reasonable doubt that we are indeed successful, whilst the rest of our lives fall limply by the wayside. The idea being, I suppose, that once we catch up with the little blighters and pin them to the ground, straddle them, and then strap them firmly to our backs we will be successful ourselves and then, by some sort of emotional osmosis, we will be HAPPY! The trouble is that the 'state' many of us seem to revert to in pursuit of success is often one of extreme stress. We spend so much time chasing down and acquiring tangible evidence that we have made it in this world, that we rarely stop to think about the intangible feelings that would help us feel truly whole and nourished.
For a long time there has been a cultural subconscious at play that seemed to demand that stress should be pinned proudly to your lapel as a badge of honour. Without it we must be doing something wrong in our lives; not working hard enough, not achieving enough, not taking enough on, not capable. As a result, stress has become a sign of importance, and of needing to get things done. There are signs of competitive stress everywhere: work colleagues swapping notes on their busy days; people talking about their hectic diaries; friends rarely having the time to meet for a coffee (cue frantic scheduling for a quick catch up before you both run off to do other things, 'important' things); mothers swapping real but increasingly dreadful tales of sleeplessness and general harassment. It's almost embarrassing to have an empty diary, devoid of responsibility. We have become conditioned into filling every corner of our days, our weeks, our lives with things to do - but are we filling our precious time with things that are really important to us and that really matter?
I am on a personal journey that started a while ago now. My son was born on Christmas Day 2011. This was a life-changing experience of course but it also marked the start of a life 'overload' that, I can see now, had been long in the pipeline for me. I think I have always been a stressed person. I think I thought it was an admirable trait. I started 'practising' stress in childhood, as a result of watching the adults around me compete to be the hardest working. Being exhausted seemed to be a good thing, a sign that the person concerned had worked suitably hard and now deserved the admiration of those around them; the badge of exhaustion was a badge of honour. By the time I was in my early 20s, this learnt behaviour had taken its toll on my health and well-being. In the aftermath of my mother's death (when I was 21), I started to seriously struggle, and sink. On the outside, I was coping, living alone, partying pretty hard and getting on with life, being brave and resilient and matter of fact. However, the deep rooted stress of the situation I found myself in was overwhelming and I had no tools to help me cope. It was okay to be stressed and exhausted but it was not acceptable to stop and ask for help.
These feelings continued until I fell pregnant when suddenly I stopped and became acutely aware of how my body felt, how I responded to stress, and how badly it was affecting me and my unborn baby. I was closely monitored all through pregnancy because my blood pressure was so high - which had nothing to do with a pregnancy related medical issue, but was simply an indication that I was and had been living in a constant state of anxiety - one that I was aware of but thought I could do nothing about. I dedicated much of my pregnancy to the art of relaxation and in many ways it was the happiest I had been for years, finally I had an 'excuse' to resist stress and focus on myself, practice hypnotherapy, yoga and meditation and nourish myself from within. However, I soon went back to my old patterns of behaviour after my son was born. Not so slowly and very surely I regressed. I went back to work and soon the juggle of work / life / parenthood brought me to my knees. One day, on the way back from collecting my sick child from the nursery, having cancelled a day of meetings to commute home from London to get him, I had to stop the car at the side of the road to catch my breath. I was sinking under the weight of my own choices and I knew it had to stop. I had two choices - to break down there and then or make a real decision to change things.
It has not been an overnight success story, but the start of a journey that has led me to read many books on the subject and to embark on a personal study of what success in life really is, and what it means to me. Slowly I can feel myself becoming calmer and stronger and actually, even though I am not there yet, I really believe that soon I will be in the position to start achieving things I could never have dreamt of achieving before. It's been like a snowball effect, I have to make a decision to live and think a certain way every day, and not allow life to crowd in on me and take control again. In fact, the impact of reading and determined self-awareness has been so dramatic that we decided my should husband leave his job in January whilst I took a sabbatical so that we could act on a long held dream to live in France for a few months, just to step off the conveyor belt of regular life and enjoy being together. It was magical. Sitting out in the garden in Bordeaux, without a penny of income coming our way that month or the next (or the next!), with absolutely nothing in the 'diary' for weeks on end, watching our son play, whilst the sun went down in the distance - that is the most successful I have ever felt in my life so far.
I see evidence that for the first time in a long time many of us are pausing for thought. To say 'we are here for a good time, not a long time,' is perhaps rather glib, but does normal, everyday life really have to be this worrying, this busy... this stressful? The answer is, I think (and with a little reprogramming), no, not necessarily. Change doesn't just happen overnight and habits are very hard to break but the reality is that not many of us want to live in a state of constant stress and anxiety, no matter how successful we may appear to the outside world. Most of us want our more basic needs to be met, and to find some peace within ourselves. It can be remarkably simple to implement change if we take the time to step back and focus on what really matters to us. And for those many times when life gets in the way and we just can't allow it to be a simple process, it's good to remember: "You must learn to let go. Release the stress. You were never in control anyway." (Steve Maraboli)