Sunday, 27 January 2013

Experiments in taking on the World

This week I've been having a little bit of an experiment with myself. Hold in there with me for this, it could all sounds a bit American (sorry American readership!) and cheesy but beneath all that I think there is some real truth to it. I've been reading a book called Weekend Life Coach by Lynda Field, an author whose book on self esteem is part of the NHS Books on Prescription Scheme (so she comes with some recommendation from the kind of people who know what they are talking about!).

This foray into the self help world of literature was partly prompted by a chance meeting I had with a patient while on Hospital Chaplaincy (yet another life-loving, courageous wonderful woman) and partly by coming across yet another depressing set of statistics about women in leadership. Did you know that the number one reason women don't go for senior roles is lack of confidence? Depressing isn't it?

I know full well that I suffer from 'Assistant Syndrome'. I always imagine myself as someone's assistant rather than the person in charge when I think about my future even though I know (from the many reports written about me over the last couple of years!) that this is not how others see me. On the spiritual side of things I worry that I will fail to use the gifts and opportunities that God has given me if I fail to really believe in myself, or that I will fail to enjoy all the wonderful things I've been given, to fully appreciate life, both of which just seem like a criminal waste and a slight to the wonderful God I believe gave them to me.

But Lynda argues that appreciation of life and confidence are attitudes that you cultivate. Her theory goes something like this: what you visualize in your head is what you get or put another way what you tell yourself will happen, you translate into action by the way you behave and bring into reality. So if you decide your day is going to be rubbish, it probably will be and vice versa. So this week I watched myself. Watched when I started thinking negatively and switched my thoughts to completely outlandishly positive ones.

In most of these incidences I was basically lying to myself. 'You really DO want to cycle up this hill Nicola and when you do you will feel a huge sense of satisfaction'. Yeah, right. I've cycled up the same hill about fifty times and never felt one ounce of satisfaction. But you know what? (and I still can't quite believe it). It really did work. I sat at the top of that hill, barely puffing and utterly shocked. Time and again over the week when I replaced the negative for the positive the experience or event or interaction went so much better. Better conversations, better work, better days.

Lynda asks you to visualize your future as wild as you can make it. What would you hope to be and do if the only limit was your imagination? I have to say even this outlandish thinking about my future seems to be paying off. For the first time when questioned about my future this week I smiled and nodded and said without hesitation 'Yes, I could see myself as Rector of a large church one day.' It was only after the words came out of my mouth that I realised I had said them. Where an earth did that come from?! Perhaps all this positivity stuff has something in it after all, what do you think? I think - watch out world!

Monday, 21 January 2013

Restoration Day

This last week has been tough and I have found myself very much in need of some restoration. Sunday saw me coming home from church and collapsing in a heap on the sofa. That is the pre-restoration stage. The 'too exhausted to think so someone bring me a cup of tea and stick a film on' kind of afternoon. By 11pm I staggered upstairs and fell into bed where I slept way past the time I should have gotten up and woke up to sunlight rather than darkness. It was a real treat.

It was a perfect start to the day I needed. A day for daydreaming, a real restoration. My Greek class was cancelled and the hill up to college was too snowy and icy to contemplate getting my bike out so I gave in to it guilt free. Finally, the time I needed. And so I wandered about my house, made a pie for dinner and sat in my favourite chair and read.

I used to live with someone who called these days 'mental health days' and that's kind of what they are. As much as you need a bit of time to let your body recover after an illness sometimes you need it just as much for your emotions, especially if you commit to your life, work and relationships with everything you have. In the study week on conflict I attended one of the course leaders said she could write a whole book on 'self care' and I quite believe her.

We're not very good at it are we? Looking after ourselves to the same level that we care for others? An insightful question is always 'What advice would you give your best friend?' I found myself in the odd position of talking to a friend in exactly the same situation as me this weekend. And do you know what I said to her 'Go easy on yourself, take time out if you need it.' But isn't it so much easier to give advice than to take it?

I know when a day of restoration has done it's job when I start to think about the future positively again. I deliberately do that on these days. What are my goals? What are the values behind them? What do I really care about? What am I really doing here? The answers to those questions aren't so radically different from what I'm doing day to day now and that is a great joy. But often it is a chance to remember it a fresh. To remember that it's the people in my life that make my world go round, the rest is just fluff, just stuff really.

Restoration days are a good day to commit to things. To mad plans that will make your year. Mine is a cookery course in Tuscany. I'm going to learn to make pasta this year in a kitchen in Florence and I can't wait. So what about you? Are you needing a restoration day? What questions would you ask on yours? And what madcap schemes will you cook up? I hope you get one soon!

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Conflict? Bring it on!

At the start of each term we have an opportunity to study a practical topic in depth for a full week. This is such a luxury in an environment where everything is so fast paced and term very quickly turns you into a mini essay factory. I spent the last week learning about Conflict Transformation. I wasn't sure what to expect. I feared a lot of awkward role plays but hoped I would pick up some tips for coping with the inevitable differences of opinion that come up all the time in life. What I didn't expect was to spend a week having my way of thinking utterly challenged and to emerge seeing things in a new way, but that is what happened.

The course itself was based around a theory called 'IC Thinking'. You can see more about it on this website if you are interested and there are a number of good books available too through that link which explain it all in a bit more detail. The basic idea is that to have 'low IC' you see the world in black and white. In a conflict different groups form quickly and soon become entrenched. The other party is dehumanized. As the conflict escalates so does the feeling of 'them' and 'us'. Trust is broken down, communication fails. It seems there is absolutely no common ground between you. Sound familiar?

Though often undesirable this is all perfectly natural as when we are in a conflict situation the blood flood to the limbic region of our brain, the fight or flight bit, and we are literally on alert for our very survival. The trouble is in most conflict situations we meet our survival really isn't at stake and by the blood being diverted in this way it is taken away from the parts of our brain which do our higher level thinking and processing. We are biologically less able to be reasonable until we calm down. It all makes an alarming amount of sense, doesn't it?! IC thinking aims to raise our thinking out of the black and white, to see our shared values and work towards a solution that has something for everyone. It's being used with young Muslim men living in Britain who are experiencing a major world view clash. 
From the IC Thinking website
What I found most liberating about the process was an exercise we did where we were asked to stand on a line somewhere between two values which were in many ways opposite of each other but both good in their own ways. It suddenly dawned on me that I can't hold all values. I have a stance. I hang about the 'equality and freedom' end but does that mean there is no value in 'tradition and hierarchy'? Having the confidence to stand where I stand, to own that and to see that others stand elsewhere and that is ok too was a real lightning bolt moment for me.

One of the underlying principles of the course was that conflict need not be seen negatively. It can be a gift. Encountering other views challenges and widens my own. Seeing where my values cross over with those who are very different from me is enlightening. And it's all just more human. Rather than making anyone who thinks differently to me into the 'other' I can hear their view and I can even disagree but defend their right to exist and hold that view just as I defend the right to hold mine. Differences of opinion need not make us enemies. We do share common ground.

I'm taking away from this week the genuine, scientifically proven benefits of taking a couple of minutes to breath in tense situations. I will be doing a lot more of that totally guilt free! I'm taking away a desire to find links between my values and others, to resist the natural urge to compartmentalize others and their views. And I'm taking away new found confidence about where I stand on these things and a new sense of kindness to myself in that. Everyone stands somewhere, I stand here.
What a brilliant week!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

A Vintage New Year

We are now well and truly settled into our new house but that doesn't mean the vintage bargain hunting is over. Oh no. Over the New Year we were in Kent, one of my favourite bargain hunting locations, and the site of a second hand homeware shop that always has me mentally rearranging my furniture at home to see if I can fit the really cute piece I've spotted. This year I came home with this, which was cruelly dismissed by my father in law as 'something you would keep old spanners in' but I LOVE it.

There are still some bits and pieces at home that we need that I am determined to wait it out for until I spot it second hand. We really need a shoe rack, but as I've seen how much better my second hand finds look in the house I am determined to find a unique one somewhere. There's something about that that really does build patience. Like when you were a kid and you had to save up your pocket money for months for the item you wanted. You just appreciate it more somehow. It might sound a bit sad but I get genuine enjoyment from walking around my house and thinking about where I got certain items, how I spruced them up and gave them new life or who owned them before me.

The other joy of vintage and having carefully selected beautiful pieces at home is that it encourages you to take time. Rather than gulping down a cup of tea from a Matalan mug you are pouring from a 1950s tea pot into tea cups you found in your grannies loft. That automatically makes you sit back and relax a bit. The same goes for entertaining. Any evening is special when a vintage table cloth is rolled out, a cake baked and some unique touches added to the table setting with old glassware or plates.

Perhaps it seems superficial but after all this is the stuff our days are made with. Getting up, having breakfast, eating with friends and family, wandering about our homes. Why shouldn't it be beautiful? Why shouldn't it be an atmosphere that reminds you of how you want to live your life, with appreciation and open hospitality? There is nothing superficial in that! And all the better when the items you choose are saved from the tip or made by your own fair hands.

So here's to a creative and beautiful 2013. Happy new year lovely readers.