Dancing With The Coat of Fear

I’ve noticed myself being a right miserable sod sometimes, of late. In small interactions I’ve been bemoaning others’ success, questioning positive actions, doubting intent. I’ve not been kind, at times. And it’s not a state that is nourishing me.

Along with this has been an urge to withdraw. I peer at Twitter or Instagram and have this sense of woeful inadequacy: look at all the things I don’t know how to do, or comment on or change or contribute to. Everyone’s wiser, better, more. There is so much nastiness out there. I have no power.

I want to run and hide. I want to bicker at the world as it shows itself to be: unfair, imbalanced, unjust.  When I’m in this place, I slowly, slowly lose my sense of hope and purpose; my optimism and willingness to be in the world well. So I get miserable and small and I moan. 

And as I do this, My sense of my own smallness increases and….oh hello to a joyless cycle.

It’s an old thing. A coat I wore for ages and know well. The coat is bit manky and not very appealing to see or be around, but in it, I’m safe. Wrapped up in fear and inadequacy, I can look a bit rough and mutter hexes or malicious incantations and keep the world away. It has some power. Splendidly miserable isolation. Fabulous life choice. 

But it’s a heavy coat, it takes effort to lug the damn thing around. It’s a bit stinky and leaves me feeling I need a refresh. Sometimes, I don’t notice myself wearing it– then I realise I’m all tensed up and snarky. Sometimes I’m so wrapped up in it, I can’t figure out how to get out, wrestling with the damn thing like a kid in a cagoule with a broken zip. By the time I get to that point (probably before I got to that point, to be honest, but I’m a slow learner, at times) I know I need help.

Help comes in various guises and last week, it came in the guise of Playing at the Edge: Dancing with your Inner Critic, run powerfully and compassionately by Steve Chapman and Simon Cavicchia. When I signed up for it, a large part of me was rolling my eyes at myself – why must I always pick the mad stuff?  Proper people with proper concerns don’t choose to do stuff like this. I am the wrong type of consultant and coach. No one will ever take me seriously. The foolishness of me. The folly and self indulgence. Etc etc…

Yeh, well… that’s as maybe… and I don’t want to keep wearing this damn coat. I’ll never be free of the judgement and fear it’s made of, but if I must carry something of it on my person, I’d rather it was pocket hankie sized and not quite so all encompassing. I don’t want to be swathed in stink and smallness. No-one – neither myself nor my clients – does well when I’m there.

So how about I step out of the coat, dance with it a bit, see if I can’t get it a little cleaner, or chop it up a little – make it less huge or more appealing or something.

So I did. We did. I have been running scared of human contact for the majority of this year, so showing up without my ugly coat to protect me and then getting it out in public did feel…somewhat counter-intuitive. OK.. so actually it felt terrifying and stupid and exposing… It is, therefore, a testament to the skill, the warmth and the care of Steve and Simon that I (and others) felt able to look at, work with and start to re-configure our versions of an ugly coat.

Theirs is a masterclass in navigating emotional landscapes with compassion and wisdom. Every time I felt off-map, I could look up and there were two guides, with compasses going: yeh, you’re alright. You are roughly here someplace… want the compass? It meant I was able, willing, to keep going.

It was a profound two days. I left with a sense of knowing how I react and respond when I’m critical or when I feeling under threat.. and a sense of how to shift that, so I’m not so in the grip of the fear. I left with a different sense of my ugly coat – it’s a little prettier, a little less stinky than I think – it and I still have some work to do.

Turns out when I’m not coating myself in judgement and fear, life is more free, richer and I have a sense of ease in the world. Like I belong more. I can be warmer, bigger, more trusting, happier. I can challenge with less fear. I can stand in the heat of clients protecting their status quo and hold for a few beats more, keep the opportunity for difference open for a longer stretch. I’m more compassionate to myself and that bubbles out to others, which generates trust and shift….

What’s not to love?

So as I brush the lapels of the stinky old coat and whisper to it that I’m going to be wearing something with a bit more colour and freedom and joy, more often, for a wee while, but that I know it well and I know how well it can protect me; I’m thankful for being able to see the stinky coat and for places to take it to dance.

The photograph is entitled “Fur Coat on the Run, Tunisia, 1983” by Richard Young and can be purchased here

What Matters – The Garden Centre Lesson


So after yesterday’s blog,  I start thinking about What Matters in my work. The things I value…The things that serve me well… I haven’t thought much about these in a while… I have an urge to properly pause for a bit and not do anything much other than stay with the question for a while – What Matters?

I give myself the gift of a few hours. I’m easing into the week from the Easter weekend and nothing is pressing too hard. There are other things I could be doing, of course, and I could allow myself to feel guilty for “wasting time” etc – but I’m over that stuff…. This is a lively, active pause, not a vegging-out, mindless one…. Good stuff will come from this…I’m encouraging myself to do as I said I was going to and stop for a while. No sudden moves. What Matters?

I sit on the floor of the office with a cup of tea in hand. The Dog is delighted I’m at her level and wags over to my side, dumping herself unceremoniously beside me….I cuddle her and stare at the spines of books, wondering which one sort of “speaks” to me – where to begin, where to begin? What follows is a period of picking books up, raffling through pages. Noticing what resonates. Noticing where I shudder…. I give myself freedom to just go with whatever. I notice myself fretting about what’s not on my shelves..is my library good enough?… I manage to laugh at myself a little…good enough for who? Who the hell is watching right now? I figure what is there got me this far & I haven’t read half of it cover to cover – there’s enough here, for today.

Through this process, I reach back to points in my learning and my development as a Practitioner where light dawned on previously dark spaces…. I find myself seeking to return to what I have been shown… Revisiting my training: how to reflect and put that reflection into new action. How to take a thing – a moment, a regular occurrence, a block, a belief, a question-  and look at it through different lenses and positions and therefore work with it differently. What Matters?

Turns out that experience matters – I don’t mean Years-Served-Endless-Hamster-Wheel-Clocking-up-Time experience, I mean the lived experience of being in the world. Of being a fully living, sensing, thinking, learning being operating in a fully living, sensing shifting world. It matters to me and for my work… my lived experience impacts me, influences me, changes me.

When I started an MSc in Org Change in 2012, I was horrified – and I mean properly Are. You. Kidding. WTF horrified – that it began with Philosophy. One of the first sessions was on Phenomenology (cue about 3 months of me having the muppets’ M-numm-M-nunnh song in my head, only with the lyrics as “phenonmenon doo-doo-do-doo-doooo” – very very bad – if you want a different experience from this explanation, view here)

Phenomenologists argue that there is no one hard and fast, objective reality, that there is simply experience, followed by the interpretation we put on that experience.  So when we were sent off to visit places near Ashridge and a bunch of us went to the same Garden Centre what we found was: We went to the same place but Oh MAN did we have different experiences. For some of us, it was all about the lovely flora & fauna – spring, colours, growth – for others, flowers signified hayfever. For others it was about security cameras, warning signs and signs saying: do this/ don’t do that – human rules on nature. For others it was about the quality of cake and coffee – the welcome and offering. The Garden Centre Lesson: Bottom line? We were physically in the same space but emotionally, mentally and experientially worlds apart.

When we got back together to talk about what we heard/saw/ noticed/ experience it was like we had been to different places. Who was right? What was important? Whose experience was more valid? Powerful stuff.

So experience matters – my experience is just a valid and useful as yours. What I see and experience counts. Even if it’s inconvenient to you.  (actually, as a Consultant…arguably especially if it’s inconvenient to you) If we want to understand the whole garden centre, we can’t just see the roses. If we want to understand the internal Culture, we can’t just data-gather from one source  – (ie Leadership, or Frontline, or Customers, or coachee etc) I mean we CAN… but if we do, we need to be clear on the limitations of that view/ experience.. and not arrange the whole world/ training budget around a single view… ( And yes, we need to layer context on to experience eventually, or no-one gets anywhere… there needs to be a value judgement in there someplace or we won’t make decisions.. but later.)

My training: Notice the phenomena. Drop the shoulds and oughts and coulds. Have the experience. Notice the data (all of it – what you think, feel, sense – bring your whole self in) Sense-make and hypothesize. Create meaning. Reflect on it (either in the moment or after the effect – or, if you are me, probably both)…Notice your bias, your Bubble & blindspots if you can…and from there, can I play with that meaning in order to move on?  Can I offer myself choices: go deeper into the issue, or widen it out or just shift it elsewhere… momentum, progress, perhaps? I’m seeking difference, insight, learning.

I go back because it’s a thing that has served me well – reflective practice – an iterative process that moves me from Here to There – wherever There might be. I know there are good models for reflective practice – interested in hearing from others what they use or value

For me? this is What Matters. Taking my experience seriously.  Taking others’ experience seriously. Data gathering from different sources. Discussion. Iteration. And time for reflection whilst cuddling the dog & perusing books that fire my synapses.