Monthly Archives: April 2013

Books that will change your life: “Finding your own North Star”

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Marta Beck is known as America’s no 1 life coach, yet she calls life coaching “a profession so cheesy it fairly screems to be covered in nuts (and some would argue it is)”. She’s one clever woman, who trained as a Chinese scholar and taught Sociology at Harvard before dedicating herself to coaching and writing bestselling books. I am reviewing this one first as it is the first one she wrote, but all of them are certainly worth a read.

The book

Finding your own North Star: How to reclaim the life you were meant to live first came out in 2001 and was reprinted over ten times since. It is a good start to get into Martha’s coaching techniques, as it is a straightforward, pleasant read with a number of easy to follow exercices. While her later books draw more on intuition, meditation and (what seems like) magic, North Star is essentially down to earth and easy to get into.

The big idea

All of us have an Essential Self, which we are born with and knows what we like and dislike (what we might consider our “true self”), and a Social Self, the part of us who helps us function in society by taking into account practicalities, rules, other people’s feelings. A healthy balance between both is necessary to a happy life.

The idea is that some people get so good at developing their Social Self while trying to please other people or to avoid conflict, that they have lost sight of the Essential Self completely. The book helps readers find out about both selves, how they affect their lives, and how to get back in touch with their Essential Selves to rebalance their lives and be happier.

What’s great about it

In my view what sets this book apart of many other self-help books with a similar message is that it’s actually a very pleasant read – as well as being a good writer Martha is quite funny. It’s also well documented, and written by someone who has obviously done therapy work with hundreds of clients before writing. So you not only benefit from all the real-life examples in the book, but get a sense that hers is advice that works. The exercises are easy to follow and very effective. The fact that Martha has been through similar problems herself makes it all the more credible.

Why it will change your life

You will find this book particularly helpful if you are in a situation where something is off – in your work or relationship or life in general – but you can’t quite pinpoint why. You might feel miserable everyday without a clear reason, or feel drained or trapped in a situation when you should be happy. The book will help you see that a/ you are not alone and b/ there is definitely a way out of it. The approach is that there is not anything “wrong” with you that needs to be fixed. The emphasis in on focusing on who you already are and allowing you to grow in a way that is true to you.

Martha’s compassionate advice, which she clearly gained from going through difficult times (anorexia and chronic illnesses, breaking free of a strict Mormon community, divorce, raising a child with Down’s syndrome) is very powerful, and her voice will stay with you long after you turn the last pages.

Analysis Paralysis

P1030047 low resI’m quite possibly the worst decision maker in the universe, a fact which was recently confirmed by a conversation I had with my boyfriend Camille. “You know, I said to him anxiously, I’m not sure whether to go on this 30 Day Challenge. I’ve just bought it but it’s really expensive, and I could really use the money elsewhere. I’m wondering whether to ask for a refund. What do you think?

“You always do that”, he replies without looking up from his book.”
Me: “Do what?”
Him: “You spend ages deciding on something, then you change your mind straight after you’ve made your decision, but you don’t dare to speak out and so you just go on stressing about it.”
Me: “No I don’t”.
Him: “Yeah you do, even your mother says that you did it even as a kid”.
Me: “How do you know?”
Him: “You remember that time your parents took us for lunch and you’d wanted a soup but ordered a sandwich, then realised the minute you ordered that you’d rather have soup but you felt too shy to change the order, even though the waiter hadn’t processed it yet?”

Mmm. Apart from the unflattering discovery that my significant others compare notes when I’m out of earshot, I was also surprised that they’ should have caught me on what I thought was my dirty little secret – I hate making decisions. I don’t just hate it, I suck at it; I take forever deciding about the smallest things and keep worrying after the decision’s been made that it might not have been the right one. As I since discovered though, I am not alone in this – and if you recognize yourself here, you might want to read on.

According to introversion researcher Susan Cain, indecision is a typical introvert trait – quiet people take longer to decide because they consider more factors than extroverts. Thus when asked “what do I fancy eating”, an introvert might be calculating not only what they would LIKE to eat, but also things like is it healthy? how many calories does it have? how expensive is it? is it balanced with whatever other meals I’ve had today? is it for eat in or take away? was it grown organically? what will people think? will the tomato sauce splash on my shirt? etc etc. By which point their brain starts to feel dangerously close to shutdown, much like a computer with too many widows open – and they no longer have any clue what it was they wanted to have.

But this leads me to think that this indecision thing is also a tragic symptom of mind over body, of intellectual thinking over gut feeling and instinctively knowing what is good for you. As a society, we’re not really into tuning in to our inner guidance – not only are we constantly encouraged to do what we should regardless of whether we like it; but pervasive consumerism has us endlessy checking we are making the most of our choices, both in comparison to our own options and to what other people have.

The excellent Martha Beck puts this way in her book Finding your own North Star: our Social Selves have taken over our Essential Selves. In the case of perpetually indecisive people, I would add the Social Self has probably kidnapped the Essential Self, shut its mouth with sticky tape and locked away in the broom cupboard where no one can hear it scream.

How do you get over this would be the object of many posts but in the meantime, do you know where your Essential Self is? if not, why not? If you suspect it may be locked away somewhere in a far corner of your being, start listening out for its voice. It needs your help to get out.

Trusting the process

P1040176 low resAs someone who enjoys doing things most when they are new and gets easily bored, I need to constantly remind myself to trust in the process whenever I want to make any sort of long term progress at things that take time to master – writing, exercising, dieting or any learning of new skills.

I first came across the concept during a beginner’s meditation course. When sitting still in silence for some time everyday, most people will experience frustration and wonder what the point of it is. In an activity where there can be no immediate tangible results, it is very tempting to give up because you feel you are wasting your time. So as you sit on your meditation cushion with ants in your pants – or as you consider postponing your daily session for the third time in a week on a flimsy excuse – it is good to remind yourself that the process is what matters. To turn up every day consistently, whether you like it or not, whether you think you are making progress or not. Getting on that cushion or on that yoga mat; doing those piano scales; plucking out a few weeds; going for a five minutes run even if (especially if) you don’t feel like it, is the only key to consistent progress.

But beyond consistency, I also like to think that sometimes the process itself has a small element of magic to it. People say that even those who never believed in God might be deeply transformed by the regular practice of silence and prayer (as witnessed in the BBC series The Monastery). I also know this well known musician who, when asked if he believes in God says, “only when I am performing Bach”. Of course Bach’s music is heavenly, but also it being largely sacred music written by a deeply religious man, I can’t help but feel the process of perfoming it might give you a glimpse of what faith is. How about those of us who started to practice yoga because their back hurt (or as I did, because the aerobics class was full), and find their life journeys utterly transformed as a result?

Trusting in the process means trusting in the wisdom of those who can teach us, those of have walked the path before us and invite us to follow in their footsteps. It is also trusting in time and its ability to transform us, and allowing ourselves to surrender, to give up on our impatience and to dare to believe that we, too, can do it. However imperfect we are, the process is here to take us where we want to go, and it is up to us to doubt it or to follow it wholeheartedly, no questions asked, and let it take us where we need to go.

Time travelling at no cost

P1050237_low resThis week I am on holidays at my parents’ in rural southern France. They have lived in the same home since I was 2 years old, so to me spending any length of time there always feels like time travel – it’s not only that their house has remained mostly unchanged, but much of the neighbours and the area are pretty much as I remember them as well. Life there is tranquil and repetitive, just like it’s supposed to be.

Yesterday I was completely immersed in this ‘time travel’ impression as I had a free day on my hands – no relatives to visit – and decided to tackle the 20-odd years worth of objects that crammed my old bedroom. Fortunately, space rarely being an issue in the countryside, my own room was never reclaimed to become an office, a guestroom or a gym. Various strata of stuff were left to accumulate and settle long after I moved out so as to give a good sample of my life from pre-adolesence until now.

I proceeded to empty cupboards and boxes full of old notebooks and school notes all the way to university, trays of postcards, shoes and handbags, souvenir trinkets from childhood. Each and every object allowed me to imagine myself being 17 again, or 14, or 10, and I was deeply moved to find possessions I treasured at various times, most of which I had forgotten about. A favourite fountain pen. A diary book filled with cut-out photos of film stars.  A song book from scout camp. Long-hand letters from dear friends (apparently we used to write these, before the days of the Internet). Boxes and boxes of notes taken in class – some bringing back bounless joy, others visceral dread. I kept the joyful ones, and threw the dreaded or forgotten rest.

Some of the objects I couldn’t bring myself to sort out. Memories from a year I was particularly unhappy. A photo of my first serious boyfriend which brought back too much of an old heartache. Course materials from a term spent in Canada carried more nostalgia than anything else, and remained untouched for another time when the pain isn’t so near.

But more than regrets, and more than the remembrance of who I was at different times, going through old things brought me a strong sense of who I am now. Which is to say, who I always was. On my current journey of wondering who my “real” self is, I see that there were always clues, just that I wasn’t very good at making sense of them. Or maybe it wasn’t time yet.

In the wise words of T.S. Elliot “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” Our quest for our selves brings us back to the beginning, which we now see in full bright light. It also brings us a sense of the journey itself. As I finished sorting through the junk and treasures from years past, I also knew that much of what was familiar then seems exotic or alien now. I wouldn’t want to go back to any of these times. Not unless I could already know what I know now.