What is a story?
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” - Kierkegaard.
I love this quote because it aligns with the coaching philosophy of "so what - now what?" It's not that our stories aren't important, because they are, it's that the most interesting part of your story is who you are now. Our stories got us here, and we get to decide what's next.
The full text of the above quote goes on to somewhat paradoxically add that “life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood;” and I agree. Our stories are full of supporting characters. We will never know other people's motives. Some things were not our fault, but they happened all the same. I prefer to focus my attention on my own actions and reactions because this is where the richness of learning lives. Our stories, when told from a positive future perspective, are full of meaning and lessons. The more we can see life from this perspective of the learner, the easier it becomes to live life freely with no regrets.
Another great thinker, Nietzsche, encourages us to fully experience our pain in order to find the silver lining or a deeper meaning to life. Which can only be fully understood in the future, leaving us to befriend misery in the moment. He challenges us to find gratitude for the story that brought us here.
“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” - Nietzsche.
I believe the key to happiness is in a combination of these two beliefs. In accepting the mystery of life by truly embracing the unknown as our constant companion and by being grateful for the richness of our life experiences, even those that teach us what we don't want. Because otherwise life would be terribly dull with little sense of accomplishment or autonomy. To feel good, we must first know what it is to feel bad. The great challenge in this life is to feel good about our decisions and find happiness regardless of the outcome. To surrender to not knowing and find the courage to risk taking action anyway.
My story is not a sad story, but I've struggled all the same.
I am a straight, white, cisgender women of Scottish ancestry from a middle-class family with two parents who are still married and still love each other. In case that was not clear, I’m saying my experience of sadness and struggle are my own and I am aware of my privilege. I have some inherited ancestral trauma from my family's history of immigration, poverty, domestic violence, two world wars and British colonialization, but nothing so recent as compared to many other peoples. I had everything I needed and more. I went to university. My parents still live in the same house where I grew up. Not many people have that kind of stability in their life. And yet somehow that secure, stable, privileged upbringing that my parents worked so hard for drove me away. I felt trapped. I didn’t like all the rules. I didn’t like the roles I was expected to play. I didn’t like doing what I was told. I desperately wanted to know why. I needed more. I was special and I was going to prove it.
I have a much beloved identical twin sister. We had a lot of conflict growing up. She was the dominant twin who liked to boss me around which would sometimes include being violent towards me. She is now a dedicated and truly inspiring yogi. She has admitted to her faults and acknowledged that her adolescent anger was misdirected at me. She has asked for my forgiveness and been forgiven. We are now fully committed to supporting each other in our mutual growth and integrity. My older sister was the responsible sibling, a practical pragmatist. Her level-headedness is something that I couldn't initially related to, but have since grown to admire and value. My parents were strict, reliable and hard working. Both were ever-present and took great interest in certain aspects of my life, like school and work. Neither asked me what I wanted from life, what my dreams were or what I was feeling. That just wasn't done in those days. Communicating with children really was a one-way street. Rules didn't need to be explained, only followed. Working on sibling and family drama has been a lifelong pursuit of mine. Especially as identical twins, people would seek to put us into arbitrary boxes. They would try to get to know us by assigning simple labels. She’s the rebel, so that makes you the good girl, right? She’s serious, so that makes you... frivolous? Who’s the smart one? Who’s the adventurous one? Unknowingly, but infinitely limiting our developing understanding of our selves by arbitrarily assigning labels that were neither appreciated nor required. It took me a long time to disentangle who I am from who others thought I was, or wanted me to be.
I too was angry as a child, but experienced it more as confusion, apathy and a persistent dissatisfaction with the world around me. I felt controlled and deeply misunderstood. I often felt that adults were lying to me or at least not telling me the whole truth. I assumed that my one ally in this world, my twin sister, supported and understood me and felt deeply betrayed when I realized that she did not. My teen years were split between internally brooding, writing existential poems alone in my room, and externally overachieving in school, dance, piano, volunteer work and whatever else I was so busy doing. My late teens and early twenties were spent taking things too far, exploring the edges, and starting to push back against the safety and normalcy of my upbringing. I left home the minute I could and went straight to university in Victoria at age 18 and graduated at 21. I lived in Toronto, Calgary and eventually settled in Vancouver where I would stay and work for over a decade in high-tech, high-stress projects.
I struggled with self-love. I struggled with self-respect and setting healthy boundaries. I tried too hard. I had narcissistic tendencies and sought validation outside of myself. I was raped shortly after my 19th birthday, but didn't know it was rape at the time. I thought it was my fault for getting too drunk and passing out. I justified and normalized my experience by being sex-positive, but not in a healthy or empowered way. I was angry at men for having all the power. I ran away from responsibilities in my personal life. I continued to over-achieve at school and at work and hoped that was enough. Someone once told me that working hard was the key to success, wasn’t it…?
And then in 2005, at the ripe old age of 23, the sweetly destructive, intervening power of the universe stepped in to help me see the self-destructive path I was on. The "work hard, play hard" habits I had developed in university weren’t sustainable. I had a full-blown anxiety attack at work. I think it was a Tuesday. I was drinking my coffee, trying to book an appointment online to see a Chiropractor. My back and neck were painfully sore. The more I noticed the pain, the more I realized that my whole body was aching. The chiro’s schedule was full for the next 3 weeks. That’s too long I thought… I’m really not feeling well... I think I might really need some help. Hey wait, did someone put drugs in my coffee...? All of a sudden, I was crying uncontrollably and felt like half of me was floating on the ceiling. If you’ve ever had an anxiety attack you know that the next 6 hours were a blur. My friend and colleague who I approached in a daze to ask for some Advil saw the signs, she asked me why I was holding my chest and quickly whisked me away from the office. She spent the rest of the afternoon with me until I calmed down. I felt completely shocked and betrayed by my body for this incredible show of weakness. But somehow, instead of feeling defeated, my spirit rallied and said strongly in my ear "this is not you." I am forever grateful for my friend, Amanda, and for my own ability to see this experience as a temporary state. It was a sign that something was out of balance. From that moment on I started to listen differently. I listened to my body. I listened to my heart. And slowly, I learned to speak the language of my soul.
From that place of deep listening, I was able to start changing my behaviour. I put together a team. I saw a counsellor. I changed my diet. I received regular acupuncture, body work and private Pilates lessons from a magical team of somatic masters at Boditree Pilates & Healing studio in Vancouver. My body and soul were mad at me. I needed to regain their trust and start to work on my relationship with ME. I did this essentially alone, except for the team I paid to support me. No one in my family or friend group knew how much I was struggling. No one except for a few people at work had any idea what I was going through. I am grateful for my boss at the time, she was informed, helpful and supportive. She said nothing when I needed to take sick days here and there; she also said she knew I could beat this. And I did. I also eventually quit. The two-and-a-half-hour commute to Surrey Memorial Hospital each day from Kitsilano was one of the things I identified as part of the problem that I could change. I found a new job in the city, close to home. A new beginning. But this disruption of the status quo was only one of many new beginnings to come. It was here that I finally started to live my life for myself. And when we start to live that way, it can scare the people around us who don’t like taking risks or fear that change will only bring failure. I had a good job. I had a good life. Don't rock the boat. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! But it was broken. I know because I broke it; I finally broke the mould. I finally felt FREE.
I started to voraciously read self-help books. I started to make new friends. I started practicing yoga. I finally booked that trip I had always wanted to take and I was finally ready to do it alone! Not by-myself, but for-myself. I realized that only I could give myself the permission and validation that I needed. My solo trip to South America was a 3-month internship in self-love. Self-mastery is still miles away, but I could begin to see the path in front of me and it was exhilarating. I finally felt like the strong, independent women I always thought I was. Then, slowly I realized that all of my pushing back against the norm had actually pushed people away. And I found myself alone. Not ready to give up control just yet, I pushed on. In a last-ditch effort of my ego to satisfy that part of me that always felt I was special, I again quit my "good" job, put my things in storage, declared bankruptcy and moved to San Francisco. And it was amazing for about four months and then the uneasiness settled in again. But this time I kept listening. This time I knew how to have this conversation with myself.
Then finally, back in Vancouver, in my thirties I was able to integrate this wild ride and realized to my surprise that I desperately missed my family. This realization eventually led me back to my small and wildly beautiful hometown of Campbell River. On the surface this might seem like a move backwards. But for me it feels like a true shift in consciousness, a completion of a cycle in my own personal evolution. I live 5 minutes away from my parents and enjoy spending time with them. They are generous, kind and fun. The medicine wheel and other wisdom lineages teach that we grow in cycles. Everything is a system, there is no end, only new beginnings. Eventually the mystery becomes enough - a constant and welcomed companion.
In the midst of all the drama of self-awakening, I completed training as a Reiki practitioner and Life Coach. I am grateful for the many tools I learned for how to support myself and others on this crazy path of personal growth, healing and transformation. Shortly after completing my coach training, I was asked a pointed question by a guy I was dating at the time. He was suspicious about the value of all this "self-help stuff" I was doing and asked, "Can we ever really change who we are as human beings?" The realization I came to in that moment, sitting on the number 25 bus, was that we don't really "change" so much as simply get closer or further away from our true selves.
"If people don't see you for who you are, be more of who you are." - Me
This belief became the foundation of my own personal philosophy as well as my coaching practice. I have also been deeply impacted by regretful deathbed prophecies. Anytime I heard a story about feelings of regret and remorse at the end, I noticed the theme was essentially the same and very simple. They wished they had acted more out of kindness, spent more time with their loved ones and shared their feelings of forgiveness, appreciation and love. For me, it is as important to be informed by these simple everyday stories of regret as by the great philosophers, so that we can learn from the experience of others and make better choices. Life can only be lived forwards but is understood backwards.
I believe in the fluidity of life, that at any moment we can choose to shift our perspective and act more fully from a place of love. It is impossible to turn back now. This path only leads forward. I can see the infinite possibilities, I am grateful, I am happy and I am no longer afraid.
I have experienced success. I have experienced failure. I have lost friends and family. I have gained a niece and two nephews.
Life won't stop presenting us with challenges. What we can change is the meaning and value we give them.