As much as I love coaching and seeing people I work with and care for grow and transform, personally I spent most of my life doing what I thought people ‘should’ do, rather than what I truly wanted to do. I didn’t even know what I wanted, I was so busy proving to ‘everyone else’ (and I’m still not sure who those people were) that I was this fabulous, amazing super-mum, career woman, world’s best lover/daughter/friend, intellectually brilliant human being, the like of which had never been seen before.
Here’s what I told myself:
“You’re not successful if you don’t have a ‘proper’ job with a salary and pension.” (I spent years working in financial services and before that retail, a not-for-profit company and the civil service. I had what some call a portfolio career – which basically means I did different things. Marketing, customer services, operations, process and change management, employee engagement, learning and development...lots of lovely job titles that take ages to explain to people not in that exact department. Now I’ve set up two businesses and I’m sorting out my own tax and pension. And I love it.)
“As a manager, you should have all the answers.” (I tried so hard with that one – I was such a bossy boss! One day I was given this feedback by someone: it is in fact a leadership strength to not know the answers. You can say to your team, “I don’t know how this works but you guys have more experience than me, please explain it to me.” That blew my mind! Putting it into practice meant I became a manager with humility and I learnt so much more. What a relief – nobody is actually expected to know everything! )
“You should be the perfect mother.” (What does that even look like?! I wasn’t one. But I did try really hard – and I’m not alone in feeling like I could have done it differently or better. Here’s the thing: the perfect mother simply doesn’t exist. Or if she does, she’s riding the back of a unicorn over in Rainbow Land whilst simultaneously pegging out the washing, doing advanced yoga, teaching long division and earning a 6-figure salary.)
“You should stay in your marriage for the sake of the children.” (I found out the hard way that that’s not necessarily the best thing. Although breaking up was hard, ultimately, the kids got over it. I stayed friends with my exes, and the kids learnt some valuable lessons about what makes a family. Parenting doesn’t necessarily involve a wedding – but if it does, that’s cool too.)
“You should dress a certain way to show how successful you are.” (I wore those sensible monochrome skirt and trouser suits to my fancy offices and really thought it made me a certain way. I hated ‘dress down days’ – I was so conflicted! How would everyone know how busy and important I was if I was wearing jeans, for goodness sakes?! I still feel like I dress for whatever the day requires, rather than purely for myself. But I recognise now I could wear a giraffe onesie – ha! - and would still be productive and me.)
“You should climb up that career ladder and get a promotion every 3 years at least.” (I did it. But with each goal achieved, I found I was very quickly less happy. There were the expectations on me to be ‘political’ and the behaviour of my peers made me seriously uncomfortable. It was as if with each step up the hierarchy, people thought they became more important. The implication, therefore, was that they were legitimately allowed to treat others ‘below’ them as if they were less important. I began to think there was something very wrong with how we develop our leaders – we invest in them at the expense of everyone else who’s working away doing the best they can. Jumping off that corporate career ladder was scary but exciting – and now I develop leaders to give them skills in treating people they way they would like to be treated.)
“You should make your children happy.” (It turns out that you can’t make any other individual happy. They choose how to be. Of course, it’s your job to guide them. But sometimes they can’t be happy, no matter what. And the answer , as painful as it is to face, is at a certain point to let them be who they are going to be. Just because they are your children, it doesn’t make them your possessions. They are with you for a short time and what you can do is make the most of it.)
I can’t express just how liberating it has been letting go of all those ‘you shoulds’ and discovering the ‘I wants’. I physically feel as if my shoulders have dropped down away from my ears, where they used to be hunched up within an hour of waking every single day.
In life, we tell ourselves countless times a day ‘I can’t’, ‘I shouldn’t’, ‘I mustn’t,’ ‘It wouldn’t be right’, ‘That won’t work’ about things that secretly, just to ourselves, we know we’d like to try or be. Each time we tell ourselves something isn’t possible, a door closes in the sprawling mansion house of our fulfilled life. Coaching helps you to peek through the keyholes and see the possibilities of the rooms beyond – then take a step over the threshold and start to really live.