Five Good Lessons, Learnt the Hard Way

It has been almost exactly one year since I left Brussels and moved to London; not that much time has passed, in reality, yet it feels like several lifetimes ago since I was sharing a rented flat in Ixelles, working in the Commission and not having any idea what my next move was going to be. Compared to that, this last year has finally started to bring back some calm and stability into the swirling chaos that was my life. I’m not saying it’s all been easy or plain sailing, far from it – if I were to put it in terms of Organisational Development, I’ve been through an ‘organic’ (read unmanaged) change process, which usually doesn’t lead to optimal outcomes. But I’ve been very lucky – I’ve got a great partner with whom I am looking forward to building on more solid foundations, I have amazingly supportive family and friends, I’m the proud (part) owner of a fabulous new apartment, I am still enjoying my job and gaining more experience in my field, and now can look forward in a far more positive way to the future, with optimism rather than trepidation. A reflective and resilient person (which I think I am) would find the valuable lessons to take forward. I thought I would share some of these with you here, since they may be applicable in a number of situations:

1. You can’t run away from yourself. You cannot move away from your problems. Nine times out of ten your main problem is yourself; you will still be there, wherever you end up. It will just be you, but in a different location. However miserable you think you are, changing your geography will not make you happy. In fact it will make things worse because you’ll have massively high expectations, that you will be so much happier when you’ve moved somewhere else, and it will be twice as bad when you get there and not only are you not instantly happier but you have a whole bunch of new problems to deal with because you just tossed a grenade into your life. Lesson #1, then, is to be honest with yourself – if you’re unhappy, really ask yourself why. The answer may make things harder to deal with in the short term but at least you won’t have uprooted yourself and made things even harder than they need to be.

2. You cannot help people if they don’t need or want to be helped. And most people actually don’t. However unfortunate their circumstances may seem, their own decisions and actions got them to where they are. It is not your responsibility to fix that. Especially if, like me, you are probably only sticking your nose in to distract yourself from your own problems. Don’t do it. Step away. Not easy, I know – only today I got stuck on a 2 hour phonecall, trying to help someone who clearly just can’t be helped, and is in no way my responsibility, yet I still feel bad if I haven’t tried.

I’ve worked out that the best way to channel this need is to get involved in some kind of volunteering or community project; to feel that you are making a difference, where there is an established need, and where your actions will be useful and appreciated.

3. Appreciate what you have when you have it. This has been a painful way to learn about undervaluing the good things and letting yourself be consumed by unhappiness, so that it becomes impossible to recognise areas in which things are actually really good. For example, it was only when I had been working in the Commission for a while and was miserable that I was able to recognise and appreciate how good my previous job at Devon County Council had been. Whilst I was there, I had let other, corrosive aspects chip away at my overall happiness and this made me feel that the job was part of it. But actually it had probably been the main thing propping me up, and I would often look back at it and remember all the challenging and interesting pieces of work I’d been involved in, and how proud I’d felt of my achievements, and really really missed it.

This also applies to relationships, amongst other things. Wishing things were different, or hoping to reach a certain point faster, will seriously undermine what you have. If you value what you have, enjoy it and look after it. Don’t push it or force it or it will blow up in your face soon enough.

4. Ask for help. Seriously. If you need it, ask for it. I have never been good at this, and in fact I usually make a point of not needing or asking for anything. And yes, it feels good and satisfying to take credit for your own achievements and responsibility for your own mistakes, fine. To a certain extent though. No-one is an island; we can’t do everything on our own 100% of the time. There’s no way I could have moved house, for example, without the help of my partner; however, my lack of ability to accept help made an already stressful situation a million times more difficult and stressful than it needed to be. In fact, how bad is this, I resent having to ask for help with anything so much that I then get annoyed with people for helping me! Nothing upsets people more than putting themselves out, out of kindness and generosity, only to be on the receiving end of seemingly baseless anger. Not good.

Repeat after me: there is nothing wrong with letting people help you.

5. Like attracts like. If you invite crap into your life, it will come, make no mistake about it. If you are negative, and bitter, and generally looking for a fight, you will get one. When you look for problems, you will find them. This is one of the hardest lessons for me, but letting things go is essential, in any number of situations. This does not come naturally to me at all; during my recent move I was going through some old paperwork and found a number of old letters, generally complaint letters to various companies who had done such heinous things as naming their soup ‘classic french onion soup’ and yet adding a totally incongruous ingredient like star anise. I know, the horror, the outrage, the – who gives a f*ck?!! Seriously, I pursued this to the point at which the poor exasperated restaurant owner gave me a voucher for a free dinner, but also wrote me a hilariously sarcastic reply which was richly deserved. Do I really want to be that person? Do I really want to spend the rest of my life telling people on my train commute to turn their music down? Having just spent a year trying to deal with noise and anti social behaviour from my neighbours, I’m so done with this stuff, it’s not up to me to police the world. My heart sank on the second night in my new flat, when I looked out from an open window to the car park next door and saw a bunch of people gathering around a car which had music blasting out of its oversized speakers; my first thought was to call the council or the police, but then something very strange happened – I closed the window, couldn’t hear any noise and instantly stopped caring. Feels so much better than my previous routine of phonecalls to various authorities at 4 o’clock in the morning. Now all I can hear are the trains going past, which is not an issue for me at all.

One of my neighbours is so bothered that they posted a note to everyone asking us all to send emails to complain about a certain train at a certain time – I know what it feels like to be that person, and I sympathise, but I’m sorry, I can’t help, see lesson #2!

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