Dealing with life’s challenges can be tough, as life coach Suzy Greaves found out for herself. So she decided it was time to take her own advice…
As a life coach, I work with people who have come to a crossroads in their lives and want to make changes. They come to me when they want to upgrade their lives so they can feel healthier, wealthier and happier. In one-hour sessions, I challenge my clients to think out of the box so they can take action to create the results they really want.
But as New Year 2012 beckoned, I felt anything but dynamic myself. 2011 had not been a good year. Two years before, after 16 years of marriage, I had separated from my husband Jools, a jazz musician (all we seemed to do was argue). I had sailed through the first couple of years of separation because it was such a relief to finally stop arguing. But once the initial balloon of relief had popped, I realised I was a 40-year-old starting a new life alone; a single parent to Charlie my nine-year-old son, and I couldn’t quite summon up the energy to figure out what my new life was supposed to look like.
I didn’t have a plan B.
New Year was approaching and I decided my life needed an upgrade. I made a to-do list. Number one was ‘give up alcohol’. I didn’t know if it was getting older or that I’d pickled my liver with too many ‘I will survive divorce’ girls’ nights out, but I couldn’t handle the booze any more.
Coffee was the next upgrade victim. I drank around six cups a day (with a big spoonful of sugar in every one). As a former health editor, I knew that my energy dips had something to do with my rather prolific sugar and caffeine consumption. I also needed to exercise, so I vowed to run three times a week.
Work? I encouraged others to ‘think big’ at work but I’d played small myself with a modest practice of clients. I sketched out a new business model to work with a group of 100 people in group seminars rather than one-to-one sessions.
As for money, I had to find a way to work smarter – to earn more without increasing my hours so I could start building a good financial future for me and my son. I also had to sort out my will and my life insurance. Financially, I had to stand on my own two feet.
Last but not least, what about love? From Hollywood screenwriting gurus to electricians, I’d dated throughout 2011. But although there were different faces, it was the same relationship dynamics of old – me being the designated driver for the evening, my dates drunkenly enjoying the ride. I had to learn to stop being a people pleaser who tried to ‘earn’ love and learn how to accept support. I decided that I would press pause on dating and try some self-love for a few months. I booked to go to Rome with my son for Valentine’s Day.
I coach people every day on how to reach their goals so I knew how to do it. I created a vision board (with pictures, photos and words to show how I wanted my life to look). I wrote down my intentions and broke them down into monthly and weekly goals – and then did nothing! New Year’s Day dawned, and I didn’t get out of bed all day.
So began a very slow start to 2012. I stuck to my commitment to sobriety and started to cut down on coffee, but without my shot of caffeine I became lethargic. I decided I would allow myself to hibernate for as long as it took. It was a long January. I installed a TV and video at the bottom of my bed and watched episode after episode of Danish crime drama The Killing, which seem to match my mood perfectly.
I’m not sure if I was inspired by Scandi-home envy or single-mother-detective Sarah Lund’s Viking grit, but after spilling coffee all over my bedroom carpet one morning in early February, I leapt out of bed and started dismantling the room. I had a yearning for a blank canvas. In the space of 72 hours, I had repainted the beige walls, ripped up the coffee-stained carpet and painted the floorboards a dazzling white.
‘By the time summer hit, I had lost a stone and felt seen, heard – and desired’By the time I set off to Rome in February, I felt like an empowered DIY goddess. ‘Be careful,’ my friends warned. ‘The Italian men won’t leave you alone.’ If only! I was practically tap dancing on the pavements to get some attention. It left me feeling fat, flat and invisible.
When I got home, I rooted out my trainers and three times a week observed my skin transform from grey to beetroot as I went running. Inspired by the fresh vegetables and antipasti in Rome, I also turned vegetarian. By June, I had lost half a stone, was brimming with energy and hosted my first online course with more than 100 people – I was working fewer hours and earning more money.
But I still found myself living in a constant state of chaos. I could never find the phone/my house keys/the dog’s lead. Having read some research on how to create new habits, I decided to put it into action. You create a ‘cue’ to replace the old habit with a new routine and reward yourself afterwards. I bought a hook for my car keys, a bowl for my mobile phone and a basket for paperwork, and I left my trainers by the door every morning as a cue to go running, with the promise of a cup of green tea when I got home. (I know green tea doesn’t sound like much of a reward, but when I gave up coffee, I became obsessed with anything with a whiff of caffeine in it!) It sounds simple, but I was surprised how difficult it was to create a consistent habit. I told myself I was too tired/busy/stressed to hang up the keys/walk three feet to put the paperwork in the basket. But I persevered and gradually it became easier. I created a new coaching tool called the ‘power hour’, where I gathered a group of 30 or more clients together online every month and we’d address the stuff that we were putting off. Power hour by power hour, I got my will, life insurance and savings plan in place.
By the time July hit and the Olympic preamble was reaching fever pitch, I had lost a stone, applied to run my first ten-kilometre race, could regularly find my car keys and I’d been asked on three dates by men who offered to be the designated driver on our evenings out and actually listened to me rather than talking about themselves all night.
I no longer felt invisible but seen and heard – and desired! Then I got a call from my brother Nik. His wife Paula, my lovely sister-in-law, had died. Paula had been ill for ten years, battling breast cancer. She was 41. A short life but if it were to be measured in quality not quantity, Paula was really 203. She left behind their 14-year-old son Ryan and my bereft brother. As the country loudly celebrated Olympian brilliance, I stood quietly at an open grave, holding the hands of my bewildered brother and devastated nephew as we watched the coffin of our lovely Paula being lowered into a black hole.
Life can seem unspeakably cruel at times.
Death is what set me off on the self-help journey in the first place. I lost both my parents to cancer when I was a teenager (it seems doubly cruel that my brother should lose his wife to this disease too). From an early age, I learned there is much in life that we cannot control. However, the self-help world taught me that the one thing you do have control over is how you choose to react to life’s challenges. And that reaction can make all the difference between a miserable life and a happy one.
Since then, I’d tried to live my life according to the well-known prayer: ‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ But the day we buried Paula, all I wanted to do was shake my fists at the sky.
When Paula was given her diagnosis of incurable cancer, she didn’t shake her fists at the sky, but rather she bought a bird table. ‘It’s lovely to watch the birds come and go,’ she said. Right until the end, she sat on the sofa, fed the birds and concentrated on making her every day as enjoyable as she could.
Inspired by Paula’s bird-table philosophy, I hit the road. When Charlie was on holiday with his dad, I took a break to walk the South West Coast Path in Cornwall with a backpack, a tent and Oscar the dog, and hoped the dramatic views would somehow soothe my grief.
On the first day, I found myself on the edge of a cliff howling into the wind, cursing the seagulls. I wasn’t just crying for Paula. I was crying for my mum and dad, who had never met my son. I was crying for my lost marriage. Now Paula was gone too. Our whole family was fractured.
I rang my brother. He reminded me that although there is much we cannot control, there is much that we can. A month before Paula died, the marine engineering company that Nik had worked for all his adult life relocated. What did Nik do? He started his own business fitting wood-burning stoves and sweeping chimneys.
(I had suggested Nik have some counselling when Paula received her initial diagnosis. Nik refused. His therapy was chopping wood, he said. When I arrived for the funeral, I noticed Nik had built five new log stores. They were all full.)
I didn’t know it but 2011 had been a year of grieving for my family and my marriage. No wonder I had slumped. 2012 brought yet more loss. But my brother is right. We have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Often we are stuck, sad and we live in the chaos because it gives us a place to hide from the pain. Yes, set an intention to upgrade your life in 2013 and take action to make that happen, but be compassionate with yourself as you unravel the reasons why your life may need upgrading in the first place.
As 2012 came to an end I signed up for the London Marathon, running for the charity Paula supported, Maggie’s Centres. I can’t change the fact that Paula died but, Forrest Gump-like, I feel that running a marathon will literally have me putting one foot in front of the other and help me channel some of the emotions that I felt on that cliff in Cornwall. And in honour of Paula, my first goal of 2013 involved buying a bird table.
2012 was all about upgrading the basics. 2013 is all about creating a plan B for my life. I want 2013 to be a happy year full of adventures; I want to take my brother and nephew on holiday; I want to invite a new man to be part of my life; I want to run and finish my marathon. But mostly I want to be able to sit and watch the birds feed at my bird table and enjoy the present – and feel strong enough to face the future no matter what it might hold.
HOW TO UPGRADE YOUR LIFE
• Be brave. Say out loud what you’re afraid to say (‘I can’t stand this job/this man/this life’). Often, living in a fog of denial feels easier than making the changes we need to make. Create a change-my-life action plan instead.
• Make a list of 20 things in your life that you are ‘tolerating’ — from piles of paperwork to the killer commute. Now write a list of actions that will eliminate those things for ever — from putting your bills on to direct debit to negotiating to work from home.
• Think of ten golden moments over the past year that gave you an energy glow. Write down the changes that you’ll have to implement to create a daily booster system, such as buying flowers for your desk.
• Ask yourself what you could do differently on a daily basis if you were brave. Would you ask someone out? Would you take a risk and start a new business? Successful, happy, lucky people are brave every day. What risks could you take on a daily basis that might open up a whole new world?