I finished my first course of coaching full of energy and enthusiasm, and confidence in my ability to change myself for the better. Less than a year later, it was Christmas. A popular song was the tongue-in-cheek anti-Christmas hit ‘Ik wil alleen maar huilen’ (All I want to do is cry) by Stippenlift. Coincidental, because that was exactly how I felt. It was the second hardest Christmas of my life, trying to be cheerful for my family, while I felt miserable inside. What had gone so wrong?
On paper, nothing. I had put the skills and insights I had gained from my coaching to good use. I had been promoted to senior scientist, was involved in planning the strategy and acquiring new projects for our group, and received nothing but praise from my colleagues and managers. I saw something different, however. I saw that for all my efforts, none of my projects were having any real impact on the world around me, or even making any significant progress. My days were filled with endless meetings but no actual achievements. My instinct was to blame this on myself, on my lack of ability to motivate and inspire others, or to persuade them into efficiency. That others around me were happy with my performance, I put down to them not having yet realised my failings. It is a horrible feeling to listen to praise while being certain that it will turn into blame as soon as people see who you really are.
My coaching had, however, also planted the seed of the idea that I might have to go elsewhere to find fulfillment in my work. After nearly ten years of frustration in my present job, I bit the bullet and started applying elsewhere. But at every company I applied to, I ran into the same problem. I was both too inexperienced in their specific line of work, and too senior to start at the bottom. Finally, upon applying to a job that seemed ideal for me, I didn’t even receive a reply. My sense of panic grew at the feeling that I was trapped. My current situation was intolerable. The only options were 1) learn to live with it, 2) learn to change it, 3) leave. I came to the conclusion that for any of these options to succeed, I needed help.
As my previous coach had been organized by my work, I felt uncomfortable going back to her to discuss leaving. So, on a personal recommendation, I approached a different coach. The intake session I had with her just before the Christmas break was the only thing that kept me going through those dark festive days. In just a single hour, she had managed to hit the nail on the head. After listening to my tale of woe, she asked the simple question. ‘What do you regard as success?’. For me, that was clear, having a beneficial impact on others. She then followed it up with a second question, ‘What do your employers regard as success?’. It was as if a light went on in my head. All this time, I had been assuming that my employers were simply not noticing my failure. Now, the truth dawned – by their standards I was doing just fine. The drive to achieve a beneficial impact was mine, not theirs. The need to be efficient was mine, not theirs. They weren’t wrong, I wasn’t wrong – but our ambitions didn’t match.
When my coaching sessions started in earnest in the new year, I experienced another revelation. What had been most depressing about my frustration in my job was the feeling that I had achieved nothing worthwhile in my life, and that this was all down to me, because I was, to put it bluntly, totally crap. Imagine my surprise to discover that these feelings were very common – in a mid-life crisis.
My knowledge of a mid-life crisis came from clichés in TV and film. It was something that happened to middle-aged men, who then went screeching around in red sports cars and chasing after young girls. It’s understandable, then, that I hadn’t diagnosed my own. It was a great comfort to me to think that there were others in the same boat, that I wasn’t a lone drop-out, but one of many searching for their purpose in life.
My coach taught me about RET, a way of analyzing your emotional responses to events, which helped me to stop interpreting everything that happened around me as being evidence of my own failings. Together, we examined my energy sources and leaks, gradually bringing me out of the state of permanent exhaustion I’d been in since the birth of my second daughter. Most importantly of all, she kept repeating the same simple idea – you are fine as you are. It slowly started to seep into my consciousness. My first course of coaching taught me that I was capable of change, my second taught me that I didn’t necessarily have to change. I didn’t need to be driven by fear – instead, I should find out what I really wanted from life, and let that be my driver.
The coaching took away my panic and gave me a sense of calm. In that state of mind, I felt able to get in touch with the company I had applied to, and ask what was going on with the vacancy. A few months later, I started work there – and I am still there now, enjoying the job greatly.
My life is far from perfect. I still regularly have days when I feel too stupid and useless for words – a liability at work, a disaster as a mother. But now, I also have days when I can sit back for a moment and enjoy a strange sensation – I feel happy. It seems incredible to me now, how long I went without that simple feeling.
I haven’t yet found fulfillment or my ultimate purpose in life. I continue to suffer great doubts about my abilities, in particular as a parent. I am still having a mid-life crisis – but I’m much less concerned about it. I feel I can allow myself the time and space to discover what I want, and I trust that, once I know where I want to go, I will be able to work out how to get there. To quote Baz Luhrman:
“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life,
the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22
what they wanted to do with their lives,
some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don’t”“Everybody’s Free (to wear sunscreen) – Baz Luhrman
It looks like I’m headed for becoming very interesting indeed.