Finding joy in a hopeless place

Here’s a sentence I never thought I would write. Eight months ago I saw something in a public toilet that really inspired me to alter my perspective. I know this sounds weird... bear with me.
It was a stinking hot New York day and being an antipodean girl I needed sand between my toes and a seabreeze licking my face. I took the F train to Coney Island (spoiler alert: not an actual island) and headed to the beach. I’d ducked into a toilet block to change into my bikini when I noticed this was no ordinary public facility. 

On the walls were framed photos of children, a framed print saying FAMILY and a wall clock. On another wall were wall hangings, ornaments and other bric-a-brac items you’d expect to see at your great aunty’s house when you pop around for a cuppa. Outside – which I hadn’t noticed when I’d walked in - were lovingly nurtured pot plants draped in organza and cheery-coloured fabric. Someone – and I think we can assume this was not a council-funded exercise – had taken it upon themselves to decorate this toilet block so it looked like their living room. As a result, it felt warm and welcoming, and a space you want to treat with respect. You felt honoured to be there and wanted to linger. 
I was amazed by how this woman’s dedication had transformed this space. I mean, this is literally a place where people go to dispose of human waste, yet she had made it feel cosy and uplifting. Yes, it was a little odd to see someone’s personal photos in a toilet block. But also, kind of comforting. Perhaps this is what Rihanna was singing about when she found love in a hopeless place (lol).
The reason this inspired me was that it made me realise that if it’s possible to change the energy of a public toilet, it’s possible for me to do the same with the contents of my head. And if I can do that, I can make room for even more love and light in my life.
A lot of spiritual teachers talk about the power of the mind when it comes to changing our lives. This is something I’ve sometimes struggled with, as it often feels like my mind is in control of me, rather than the other way around. It’s all well and good to think positive when life is tickling along nicely, but when everything turns to custard, I find my resolve crumbling. What I’m realising more and more is that acceptance is as important as positivity. What I mean by that is it’s OK to accept a bad day instead of fighting desperately to pretend it’s something more rosy (so long as I don’t take it out on others). But when it comes to the beating-myself-up, nothing-ever-goes-right-for-me, I’m-never-going-to-get-what-I-want thought patterns, I can definitely change the energy of that space.

Finding joy amid the darkness is one of our greatest challenges as humans. But with open hearts and, ideally, open minds, it is always possible.

An age-old problem: coming to terms with getting older

Woman holding iron to her face with steam
If you ever want to feel young, I highly recommend spending time with senior citizens. I’ve volunteered at retirement homes for a couple of years, and it’s really changed the way I think about ageing. This is not why I do it, of course – I think loneliness is a soul-destroying experience, and I want to help alleviate that in others – but an unexpected side-effect has been the way it’s led me to reflect on how much time, joy and wonder I still have before me, despite society telling me the best is behind me.
Because we live in a society that glorifies youth, we’re not very good at accepting the passage of time. And that has a negative effect on the way we feel about ourselves and our lives. An intriguing 2013 study at Trinity University in Texas, US, found that “old talk” can be as damaging as “fat talk” when it comes to women’s body dissatisfaction and self-image, particularly in those aged 46 and older. (Yeah, thanks... we so needed more reasons to feel crap about ourselves...)

When it comes to ageing, we tend to lament what we’ve lost – pert boobs, deep reserves of energy and stellar hangover-recovery powers, for example – instead of celebrating how much we’ve gained. We dread birthdays and complain that we ‘aren’t as fit/fast/energetic’ as we used to be, instead of reflecting on how much wiser, stronger and more confident we are. I wish we could reframe the way we view ageing, starting with language that is more celebratory of age instead of resentful.
Little kid crying at birthday party
Recently I’ve been working on a magazine aimed at teenagers, and in some ways it’s made me feel like a dinosaur. Kids today have a totally different language (did you know: ‘OP’ is shorthand for ‘on point’, and ‘embarro’ is short for ‘embarrassing’?). But equally, it’s made me very appreciative to be at the age and stage I’m at now. No way would I want to be a teenager again, dealing with first periods, peer pressure and figuring out how to talk to boys (actually, I’m not sure that I’ve nailed that one yet). That is one reason ageing is really, really great – you realise that the years that were supposed to be the best years of your life were (at least, for me) the ugliest, and that life has been much easier from there onwards.
Getting older is a privilege, and, as we are oft reminded, it’s one that’s denied to many. Every year we spend on this planet is another opportunity to learn and grow, and to bear witness to incredible beauty. And, yes, to experience pain and heartbreak too, but that is part of the journey, and part of ageing is learning how to make sense of that and to dig our way through it ‘til we get to a stronger place. 
A major factor in our fear of ageing is the idea that we’re running out of time to be all that we want to be. Working with the spiritual realm has taught me that’s not the case. We have enough time to let the truth of who we are unfold and to get closer to the majesty encased within our own hearts. We have enough time.
Woman's hands with sand passing through themFor me, the best part about getting older is no longer giving a shit. So many of my choices when I was younger revolved around concern for what other people thought of me. In my teen years I used to suppress my laugh because I thought it was too loud and embarro (!). In my 20s I stumbled around in high heels, even though I lack the poise and coordination to walk gracefully in them, because I thought that that was what I was supposed to do. Now I wear ballet flats all the way (yay comfort!). These are only small examples but they illustrate ways that I no longer care about the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘musts’. This, for me, has been the single greatest joy of ageing – learning to follow the beat of my own heart.
I have cellulite and wrinkles that I neither want to show off nor hide. Because at the age of 36 I recognise that those things don’t matter. What matters is that I am fully showing up for my life, committed to giving more and being more, and writing my own script for how I want my life to look. I am more sure of myself and my purpose than I have ever been. I am a kinder, more centred, more resilient person than I was one, three, 10 years ago, and I have every reason to believe I will continue on that trajectory. Because that’s what ageing looks like – a better me. 
I would not go back, not for anything.

I love getting great feedback, but struggle to accept it (this struggle IS real)

Woman in field holding heart-shaped balloonOne of the really great things about having a spiritual business is that you receive wonderful feedback from people. One of the challenging things about having a spiritual business is that you receive wonderful feedback from people.
Yep, you read that right.
As much as I love hearing from people whose lives have been fundamentally altered by a card reading, who’ve felt uplifted after reading a blog post I’ve penned, or who’ve been moved by an Oracle Card Of The Day, sometimes that feedback makes me feel uncomfortable.

I’ve been asking myself some probing questions about why I have such an uneasy response to what is, for all intents and purposes, a thing to celebrate. Why it is that I sometimes have to put the phone down and take several deep, slow breaths before I respond thanking that person. Why I might change the subject when a client thanks me for the healing session I’ve given them. It’s because, when I’m communicating with spirit then relaying those messages or transferring that energy to others, I am making myself very vulnerable. Equally, when I share my deepest thoughts and emotions on this blog. And when people respond to that vulnerability, it amplifies how exposed I feel. And that can be terrifying.
I want to make it clear that I do really love your feedback – it’s incredibly helpful for me to be shown how the positive energy I’m giving out is being received (and then returned to me in spades). But I still feel uncomfortable when it comes to receiving such feedback.  
Recently I read a fascinating article on Psychology Today (yes, I’m a nerd… but I doubt that’s a surprise to you) about the fear of acceptance. I’m familiar with the fear of rejection, but the idea of someone avoiding acceptance was new to me. Except that it wasn’t that new to me, actually, because it’s something I’ve been acting out throughout my life in many ways – I just didn’t know there was a name for it.
Woman hiding in giant bubble.
This is the statement in the article that resonated most with me: “When you are with someone whose demeanour, smile or kind words suggest that they respect, like or accept you, how do you feel inside? Do you notice some inner squirming or discomfort?” Yes I do. Lots of it.

Here’s what fear of acceptance means: in a bid to protect ourselves from being rejected, we take measures (both consciously and unconsciously) to avoid being accepted. We sabotage friendships and relationships. We stay on the outer fringes of social circles and events, to avoid being noticed. We get hung up on what people might think of us instead of focusing on how we feel in their company. Basically, we like to hide.
But having a spiritual business means I don’t get to hide. I have to show up wholeheartedly. I have to be vulnerable and human.I have to be ALL IN.  I cannot keep people at a distance. I cannot play safe. I cannot mirror the attitudes or behaviours of other people  I have to honour my own truth. I can no longer run away from connection.
Coming up against internal resistance is usually a pretty good sign that there’s something underlying I need to address. It’s an opportunity for growth. So following the article’s advice, this is my new strategy. When I receive a heart-felt compliment or a comment on something I’ve done that has made an impact on someone, I’m going to lean into the discomfort. I’m not going to brush it off. I will not attempt to transform into a person who loves getting attention and who embraces compliments like a boss – because that is not how I’m wired. Instead, it’s about accepting that this makes me uncomfortable, and being OK with that. Choosing to lean in anyway. And realising – eventually – that I’m completely safe to do that.

Making peace with the past, and its scars

In the process of writing last week’s post about transformation I started thinking about my phoenix tattoo, which got me thinking about regret and acceptance.
The phoenix is, of course, a potent symbol of transformation. It’s the mythical bird that rises from the ashes after adversity. The caterpillar emerging from its cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. You get the idea. 
I was certainly making a statement when I chose to get a phoenix tattooed on my upper back at the age of 22. I was also ahead of my time, as Ben Affleck has just done the very same (although his is more colourful and impressive).

To give you some background, at the time I got inked, I had come through the other side of a battle with depression and a redundancy. I wanted to carry a mark that would symbolise my resilience and inner strength. I hoped it would give me something to draw on in challenging times. I believed, in the naïve way that only a 22-year-old could, that I was through my biggest personal crisis. I did not then understand that life is a series of challenges and strength building, and that we are reborn again and again and again (unless, of course, we choose to stay stuck).
Instead of being a badge of honour, the tattoo became a source of regret. It didn’t remind me of my transformation, it only reminded me of the misery that had permeated that chapter of my life. I felt disappointed that I had not grown enough to become the person I had believed I could be on day in a dingy Auckland tattoo studio. Plus, it was kinda ugly. 
So, in my early 30s I decided to have it removed. Unfortunately the laser treatment process was excruciating (vastly more painful that the tattooing process), and was predicted to become more so as treatment progressed. It was also costly. So after five treatments I decided to make peace with the now slightly faded bird, and quit treatment. 
My tattoo removal story in Women's Health magazine
I totally understand how people who have tattoos of their ex’s name on their forearms, or Kermit the Frog tattoos on their butt (I actually know someone in this situation), would want to have those removed. But my tattoo wasn’t that awful. So why had I wanted it erased so badly?
What I’d been trying to do was the equivalent of what people do on Instagram every day – edit out the ugly side and present only the elements of myself that I wanted to be seen. I knew that getting rid of the tattoo would not alter the course of my history, but at least it would mean I wouldn’t have to keep reflecting on it – because every time someone saw the tattoo I had had to explain (in the vaguest of terms) that I had been through “a rough period”. In doing so I was invoking the heavy energy around that period once again. I felt a whiff of the despair and, just like a dementor in Harry Potter, its darkness loomed large. I didn’t want to be dragged down by that chapter any longer. I wanted to put that behind me once and for all. 

So very idealistic.
The past is ugly. It has shadows and it leaves scars. It cannot be erased – even with the heat of a laser. The challenge for me has been in finding a middle ground between acceptance and regret. More than a tattoo could, it was in writing about my battle with depression that I finally made peace with the parts of myself from which I had bled so profusely (read that post here). I now neither embrace nor recoil from reminders of my past struggles. I have taken the lessons and am doing my best to gently move on. I have regrets, but I no longer ruminate on them.

We are all better off for what we’ve been through, good and bad. That’s the unsightly truth.

‘You can’t sit with us.’ How squads and cliques show up in adulthood

Girl standing on her own while others are behind her

Even though I love the movie Mean Girls, it does reveal some uncomfortable truths about the way we exclude others socially. I also adore Taylor Swift, but her penchant for assembling beautiful people in the form of a ‘squad’ takes me right back to the misery of teenage cliques.
There’s an interesting study out of the US that shines a light on how being excluded affects us on a deep level.

Researchers at Ohio State University got 5000 participants to play a computer game in which they were told to only ‘pass the ball’ to certain people. The players who were excluded ended up with elevated blood pressure and stress hormones. The isolation effect also triggered the part of their brains that processes pain – so being excluded literally causes people pain.
I’m no scientist, but I’d imagine those effects happen because our body recognises the danger of being cast out of the pack. In evolutionary terms, our very survival depended on being part of a tribe so we weren’t attacked by wild animals nor left to fend for food on our own.
There are emotional effects too, obviously. The researchers concluded that when we are ostracised, our self-esteem plummets (boo!). We lose a sense of belonging, which, they noted, is extremely important to emotional well-being. 
I’ve noticed the rise of the hashtags #squad and #squadgoals on social media, and this trend bothers me because it smacks of elitism. That underlying exclusivity really raises my hackles. What you are saying – and this is only my opinion – when you describe a group of people as a ‘squad’ instead of simply ‘friends’ is, essentially we’re a club – you do not belong. You can’t sit with us.
Woolly mammoth illustration
I wrote recently about how a desire to fit in with the tribe sometimes shows up for me (click here for that post). The fear of being excluded is still real, well beyond my high school years. But perhaps that’s because I've always felt like an outsider.
A few years ago I was absolutely devastated when I logged onto Facebook and saw photos of my (now former) best friend’s baby shower – an event I had known nothing about. All of our friends had been invited. To be fair, we had been drifting apart for some time, and I am not particularly maternal so I’m not an ideal baby shower guest. Still, the fact that everyone else in our circle had been included, and I had not, was excruciating. The sting of being excluded by a group of people I had cared about made me burn with shame.
I would like to think that as I become more comfortable with being myself I will become less concerned with how other people perceive me, and consequently how they might treat me – i.e. by exclusion or acceptance. I’m aware that as a highly sensitive, introverted person who works in the spiritual realm, I am even less likely to fit into the mainstream now than I was in high school.
If no one wants to sit with me, because they perceive themselves as better than me or just because they don’t like me, I need to learn to be fine with that.

I’m fairly confident that being excluded does not mean I’m in danger of being trampled by a mammoth.