Rising up when it all falls apart – the difference between failing and being a failure

This week I will hand back the keys to the practice where I’ve been offering reiki treatments. Long-time readers of my blog may remember that 12 months ago, I took a massive leap of faith and committed to a one-year lease on a room at a health and wellbeing practice here in Sydney. I planned to offer reiki treatments two days a week (read that blog post here), and hoped that I could grow a client base and eventually make this, combined with my angel card reading service, a career alternative. It was a big financial risk… and it has not, unfortunately, paid off. The very worst result that could have happened – the one I was most afraid of – has indeed happened. And I’m OK with that. Now.

For a long time I was not OK. In February it became apparent that my business was not working. That, on top of a (temporary but prolonged) drought in my primary source of income, plunged me into a state of despair... not to mention debt.
When I realised there was nothing I could do but watch money flow down the drain until my commercial lease ran out, the sense of disappointment was immense. I had lovingly stacked my hopes and dreams, along with significant sums of money, into this business, and it had not worked. I had wholeheartedly trusted that having faith was enough to make my dreams come true... and I was wrong. I couldn’t not see this failure as an indictment on my skills and my worth. The failure of my business felt like proof that I was a failure as a person. My inner bully’s cries of “I knew you’d fuck it up!” were deafening.
Business leaders around the world consistently describe the experience of losing everything as integral to shaping their success. JK Rowling famously had her Harry Potter manuscripts rejected 12 times. “I was the biggest failure I knew,” she said. When Bloomsbury Publishing took a punt and printed her first three books, it warned her not to quit her day job. As we all know, Joanne went on to achieve stratospheric levels of success. Yet on 12 previous occasions, she had failed. It was not her moment to shine… until it was. The Universe has a schedule all its own.
Failure is a blistering, heavy word. The most unhelpful thing anyone said to me when I was coming to realise things were not turning out as I’d hoped was: “Just think positive – it’ll all work out.” Please, never say this to someone going through a significant challenge. It implies theyre not trying hard enough, that a lack of faith is the cause of their struggle and that getting what they want is a mere case of wishing for it (a wildly inaccurate interpretation of the law of attraction). So, so unhelpful.
What *was* helpful for me as I licked my wounds was reframing the situation. There’s a difference between failing and being a failure. The former means I haven’t had success yet; the latter indicates I am flawed on a personal level. Once I understood the distinction between the two – and stopped beating myself up – I found my way to a space of acceptance. Instead of seeing myself as incompetent I was (eventually) able to depersonalise the experience, and recognise failure as a necessary step in my development. Brene Brown says: “Failure is an imperfect word because the minute you learn from it, it ceases to be a failure.” 
Although the Universe didn’t meet me halfway on this business plan, it did issue me with an invitation to grow. Learn from this, and you’ll become more resilient. Learn from this, and you’ll navigate future obstacles better. Learn from this, and new doors will open up to you, opportunities better than you could have scripted. The secret of life, as Paulo Coelho expressed so exquisitely in The Alchemist, is to fall down seven times and get up eight.

There are all sorts of reasons why my reiki practice likely didn’t fire. It could have been the wrong area. It could have been (and most likely was) simply the wrong timing. It was 100 per cent not lack of skills nor lack of effort on my part. I know that I could not have put anything more into that business. I have no regrets… now.
So when I take my certificates off the wall and push my business cards through the shredder, I will remember the difference between failing and being a failure. I will remind myself that I am not defined or diminished by this disappointment. And as I let go of my expectations I will hold space for shiny new opportunities. 
Your move, Universe.

Why criticism stings so badly, and why we can't afford to hide from it

*Trigger warning: contains bullying themes*
What is the worst thing someone has ever said to you, or about you? The thing that stung so badly you can feel yourself plunging into a barbed-wire pit at the memory?
Maybe you had to think about it. Maybe a dossier of vitriolic words sprung into your mind immediately. Maybe you simply don’t care what people think of you (if you fall into this category, I’m assuming you’re either a cat or Lena Dunham).
I’ve written a lot about my difficulty in accepting compliments and praise, but it wasn’t until last week at a talk by prominent vulnerability researcher and TED Talk star Brené Brown that I started thinking about the ways criticism, and the fear of it, have shaped my choices and behaviours.

Brené, who was in Sydney to open The School Of Life, described the eye-wateringly savage comments made about her 2010 TED Talk (which, incidentally, remains one of the top five talks of all time). These included nasty remarks about her appearance and her weight, and expressions of “pity” for her husband and children. Because if you really want to wound a woman, and you are protected by the anonymity of the world wide web, you go straight for the jugular – her looks (which is how society measures her value) and her worthiness to be loved by others (which is how she measures her value).
Brene Brown speaking at School Of Life SydneyFor me, the most devastating criticisms were made in my adolescence. Unlike the other kids at my small religious school, I was not from a rich family. I did not wear surf labels, I wore clothes handed down from my older cousins. My dad was in the building trade, not a lawyer or accountant. I had zero interest in watching, or participating in, sport (this was a cardinal sin in provincial New Zealand). I was a sharp, eager learner, and I knew big words that other kids did not. In essence, this is the (unrequested) feedback I got: you’re different, you don’t belong, no one wants to be your friend, and, most stingingly, no one will ever marry you. These junior emotional assassins managed to cut through to the core desires of me and every human being: to be loved and to belong.
While I was reflecting upon this ugly chapter of my life, I came undone under the weight of one very heavy memory. I remember going to a school disco and being so ridiculed for what I was wearing that I ran into the cloakroom, climbed to the top of the locker cube and spent the entire night lying against the wall so no one could see me, counting down the hours until Dad arrived in his ute to pick me up. This happened more than 25 years ago, but in many ways I am still that little girl in the pink corduroy skirt making herself as small as possible. I am still searching for acceptance. I am forever mourning for the cool, popular, enviable person I will never be. 
That’s the thing about the most hurtful criticisms, the ones we never forget – they maim us because they appear to confirm a belief we secretly held about ourselves: that we are not good enough. Yes, bullying is an extreme example, but the intensity of the criticism is not the point. When you are criticised, either for what you’ve done or for who you are, it will make you want to retreat and protect yourself. It will make you sorry you tried to do that brave thing, and highly unlikely to do so ever again. It will make you want to hurt other people. It will make you paint yourself as flawed, inadequate and unworthy; you will be wrong on all three counts.
Woman's chest holding heart
Bestselling author Liz Gilbert does not read reviews, an experience she describes as biting into a sandwich of broken glass. Brené carries around a one inch by one inch piece of paper on which she’s listed the names of the few people whose opinions she cares about. If your name is not on the list, she will disregard your feedback. Because if you are sitting in the cheap seats passing judgement on others instead of standing up, baring your soul, living a life you are proud of and risking getting your arse kicked, Brené has no time for your opinion. 
Brené absolutely 100 per cent cannot let fear of criticism stop her from making herself vulnerable in her work, her relationships and her life choices. Because she knows from her research that being vulnerable is how we grow and connect. Vulnerability, she says, is showing up and being seen when you don’t know what the outcome will be. Courage is risking people judging you. It is unwise to stop caring what people think of you, she notes – because then you stop connecting. Human beings are wired for connection – and (in my opinion) those connections are what gives life meaning. For many years I held back from connecting with people because I was not willing to risk being truly seen. I was safe, but one-dimensional. One of the ways I have made myself vulnerable is by being open about my ability to communicate with angels, and risking being labelled a weirdo.
If we want to live full, satisfying, meaningful lives and experience deep relationships, we must risk criticism, judgement and negative feedback. We must dare to stand out even though we may be mowed down by the people who are playing safe. If we do not, we will never know all that we can be and all that we are capable of.

As one of my favourite quotes (the one on my Facebook page cover picture) declares: “Our tragedy isn’t in the failing, it’s in the not trying. We are here to risk our hearts.”

On necessary heartbreak

Bleeding broken heart illustration"You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens."

I’ve never met a Rumi line I didn’t love, and this sentence is one of my absolute favourites. It reminds me of a quote I read last year by the peerless Cheryl Strayed. Someone had written a letter to her ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column (BTW if you’re not familiar with the Dear Sugar series, you are truly missing out) asking what advice she would give to her twentysomething self.
Her characteristically eloquent response included reference to her decision to divorce her husband in her mid-twenties. She had still loved him, but even though she could not say why, she knew she didn’t belong in the relationship anymore. Cheryl closed with this quote, which I have loved ever since and never forgotten: “Be brave enough to break your own heart.”

When I first read this, it leaped off the page and dug its steely fingers around my own silently shattering heart. You know that feeling, I know you do. Something resonates with you so strongly you’re sure it was written just for you, just for that moment. It is the truest thing of all the true things that have ever been before. At the time I was in the process of completely uprooting my life in New Zealand and moving to Australia for no good reason other than the fact that I could not stay. And no matter how many times people asked me why I was leaving, I could not produce a better answer than “I need a change” – as if this were sufficient to justify the wrench of leaving all the people I loved. If you’re going to leave behind the people who define you, bolster you and imbue your life with so much meaning, you’d want to have a very good reason. I didn’t. Staying meant stagnation, but leaving meant losing so much. I knew ultimately that I would gain in the long run, but in that moment, surrounded by boxes, Customs forms and piles of the objects that had amounted to my life in Auckland, I could only see the losses.

You must be strong enough to break your own heart. Friends, I held these words to my chest and I repeated them at 2am when fear and despair kept me from sleep. I uttered them when I found myself shaking in the toilets at work and in the evenings when I ran out of tissues to collect my tears. These words reminded me that I had to do the thing I did not want to do – even though it made no sense - and proffered the dimmest promise of finding hope on the other side.

We do not grow when we stay stuck, we grow when we take risks and follow our instincts, even when common sense and peer pressure do not support us in those actions. I broke my own heart and I found – as I had suspected it would – that the being strong made me even stronger. It was the right thing and the best thing to do, and it was worth all the tears and all the despair.

My affection for Cheryl’s prose is matched only by my adoration of Rumi, and I firmly believe there is Rumi line for every occasion. On the subject of necessary heartbreak, he offers this: “The wound is the place where the light enters.”
And where light enters, growth happens.
(That last sentence is mine, but you can use it.)

Have you ever broken your own heart? I’d like to give you a high-five. And a hug. Because that is an act of bravado, not to mention self-love. Email me your story here.

Everyday heroes. I wanna see you be brave!

Person jumping off cliff and flyingFollowing on from my post about non-conformity, I’ve been thinking more about bravery, and what it looks like. The reason for this: recently in my part of the world there was a news story about the survivors of the December 2014 Sydney Siege possibly receiving bravery medals as recognition of their ordeal. This sparked some public debate, with a prominent politician suggesting simply being a victim of crime, as horrific as this event was, didn’t come under the banner of bravery, and that medals should be reserved for extraordinary acts of heroism. I’ve no intention of wading into that particular debate, but I would like to riff on what the word ‘bravery’ actually describes, and whether I need to reframe my understanding of this powerful word.

To me, bravery is in the everyday choices we make to overcome Fear. The unfit woman who chooses to go to that gym class even though her inner-saboteur is telling her it won’t make any difference. The journalist who conducts interviews every day despite a stutter occasionally sneaking in and testing his composure. My sister, who is disabled, and dyes her hair blood red – because, she reasons, people are staring at her anyway.

I’ll never forget a conversation I once had with a friend who had thrown in her six-figure-salary job in IT to go to medical school for six years, which made her a poor student until she was well into her 30s. I told her I thought she was incredibly courageous, and her response floored me. She remarked that it wasn’t an act of bravado but of desperation. She had been miserable and felt she simply could not continue to live the way she had been living. I thought she had made a brave choice; she felt she had had no choice at all. As I pointed out to her, plenty of people feel disappointed with their lives but do nothing about it. They decide to accept the status quo rather than take the gamble of changing it. Deciding to make a change is brave, and worthy of applause.

What does bravery look like to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

I'm not scared! (Actually I am. And that's OK.)

Today I read a Facebook post that was so on point that I felt inspired to write a post of my own on that very topic. Then I thought, why redo something that someone else has already done so well? (Advice that Madonna would have been wise to take when considering doing a cover of American Pie; amirite?) 

The post in question is about fear, and how trying to overcome it completely is a waste of time and energy. Fear is, and should be, a constant companion in your life, Liz Gilbert writes in this excellent column, and trying to rid yourself of it is futile. The object is to acknowledge it but to not let it stop you from doing what you want. 

Here's Liz's brilliant piece on this topic, which I encourage you all to read. She says it much better than I could.