• WELLBEING

    On health, joy and assumptions

    Studying counselling is super interesting, extremely challenging at times and also very rewarding. I am slowly entering the stage of active practice – which is, of course, very humbling. As I enter the next phase of this journey I am also spending a lot of time thinking about health, collective wellbeing and systemic conditions we all grow up in. Not only because I am obligated to do so, but also because I want to.

    You see, historically we have lived a strange paradox in carrying professions and carrying roles (motherhood etc): we were told we need to always care for the other, but never really focussed on how to recharge our own batteries. I was lucky that despite my heavily Catholic upbringing (which dictated turning the other cheek and always putting others first), I was raised by a pragmatic father. I was always expected to eat well, move, study, learn and invest in myself as much as possible in order to help others. I did not believe in complete altruism because it never really made sense to me. You cannot pour water out of an empty cup so why would you be expected to give and give without receiving any support yourself?

    spotted during my morning run

    I learned this through conversations with dad, but also through modelling. Before my GCSE’s I was studying 24/7. One day dad walked into the room, confiscated all my notes and books and kicked me out to see a friend or go for a walk – genuinely, honestly threatening me that if I don’t stop and rest he would take me out of school altogether.

    And so I lived this approach as well as I could and now that I am entering a really demanding world of mental health support, I am aware of the natural need for self-care more than ever. I spent the first few years making time for studies – to lower my stress levels. Then I spent two years in therapy working on my financial health – an aspect of life we normally don’t talk about whatsoever. And now I am moving to the most difficult area for me: fitness and physical wellbeing.

    At the beginning of the year, I set myself an intention – to continue working on my financial habits but also gradually start thinking about my weight and fitness. As a result of Brexit and increased levels of racism, I have gained 25% of my body weight in the last five years, which even on paper feels heavy – not to mention me having to carry this surplus on me all the time (and put up with the occasional judgement of others too). I grew up relatively skinny, healthy and confident. Surrounded by boys (hanging out with my brother’s gang) I did not feel threatened or judged like other girls. In primary school, I grew bigger but lost the weight in puberty so I learned that it’s my body’s response to the world around me. Brexit is just another example of that. However, as I enter the new phase of my life – move through the menopause (another tabu topic) towards a fast-paced decline in my health, I remain comforted by the fact that we are an ageing society and all age better these days. I am however concerned about my general ability to stay fit, focussed and helpful to my clients. As a child of academics, I never considered running or cycling fun, so I want to tackle fitness and learn it as a new habit altogether.

    spotted during my morning run

    Since January I was looking at my nutrition and activity levels to realise that I eat relatively well. We make our own food, grow some of it, order it from the local farm and now and again allow ourselves a take out (but in Bristol those are really good too). I don’t drink alcohol (oh, what a difference that makes to overall wellbeing) and I appreciate the power of good daily dose of vitamins too. But I do not move! I hate running. I am scared of cycling – traffic is way too fast for me, I simply don’t feel safe on the road. I think doing a fitness class at home is weird. Yoga comes in and out of my life when I have periods of quiet mindfulness or difficult life choices to make. I meditate daily over my coffee, but I do not actively practise meditation at all.

    I spent six months trying actively to improve my fitness habits, but in vain. I am always back to the same place: I cannot do it and I do not like it. I am sharing this today because I finally had a really good breakthrough in my thinking and behaviour patterns so I would like to flag up a few things I have realised, just in case it’s helpful:

    1. Our systemic pressure to be fit, skinny, beautiful and successful is a myth, but it does affect us. Many of us avoid shopping malls and approach our body image relatively sensibly. However, the notion that we are “never good enough, and never will be” lingers like a bad poison deeply in our psyche due to severe market demands. Sometimes we might not be aware of just how detrimental it is to our willingness to change. As I went through my CBT techniques around fitness I had to admit that yes, I am conscious, yes – it is important what I wear when I run, and yes – I am more inclined to run when streets (pavements, not roads) are empty. That’s sad, but it’s a good starting point. Knowing this I am not running accepting that on some days I might feel ugly or vulnerable and that’s OK. But it should not stop me from running. That would be giving into a wider problem I do not wish to support.
    2. Our systemic abuse of women is making us feel unsafe on the road and that sucks. It’s incredibly sad but picking up my first few running magazines I realised that the abuse increased in the times of pandemic – because people feel even more stressed out and lash out on each other. So it’s not easy to motivate ourselves to go out and face the world like this. However, as an annoying feminist I decided to take this on and respond to every single comment and – if needed – report it. It’s the only way this world is going to change. I refuse to stay at home based on the assumption that if I am out, men are free to subjectify me just because I am wearing fitness clothing. Nope. I do not consent to this.
    3. I am full of excuses based on assumptions, systemic, cultural, personal biases that form a huge defence wall protecting me from…getting better at taking care of myself. I actually had to do a word map on an ideal fitness state and one I am in now to notice scary, sad realisations: feeling guilty, ashamed, worried, feeling that I might try but I will never be fit on an ongoing basis. And it does not matter if it’s due to my rather academic upbringing, a privileged and comfortable position in life over the years, good health and no need to get better or much deeper mechanisms at play. The point is this: I am setting myself up for failure by default. It took me a long time to realise this but it’s a great place to be in: realisation means I can let go of the assumption and work on fitness differently – with joy, hope, determination but also a sense of lightness of the “oh, yes I can” attitude. So these days I run, because I can and because I am capable of getting really fit.
    4. My ungrateful, moaning, negative thinking. I am so upset that we are all raised in reinforced negative biases. It’s not enough that our brains are searching for negativity (in the very natural need to protect us), we are also culturally adding a layer of complaint – because it’s fashionable. I find it infuriating and when I discover that bias in myself I do my best to weed it out. It’s simply unhelpful. We can sit and moan or we can consider the possibility of change for a better, dream, imagine it and aim for it too. Which thinking is going to get us to a better place? Well, that’s pretty obvious. So this week I run practising gratitude and counting my blessings: I listed my opportunities and options (green Bristol, calm streets, an immense amount of time to work with during the lockdown, a sunny summer, a teenager who can take the dog out, my own strong health-giving me a good start). And as I run I notice more blessings: the man in the wheelchair who greets me each morning during his morning patrol makes me wonder – why am I sitting on my bum at home? The mum with three children who cheerfully waves at me in the park makes me think of just how easy my motherhood is comparing to hers – and why am I not smiling? It’s tricky to make comparisons, but if done from a humble place of gratitude it really motivates me to run more. Simply because I can.
    5. My historical operating from my “smart head” is not helpful in picking up this new habit because I am fighting over 40 years of other habits and a pretty ancient reptilian brain. And so instead of talking about running, I have to get up and run. So these days I get out of the shower, have my morning coffee, a glass of water and then put my shoes on. I will have to do this for at least three months to override the old habits (we never actually get rid of those, we can only override them).
    6. Trying to be fit versus staying fit is not productive at all. I spend so much time researching, discussing and preparing for running that I have no time left for the actual activity. Yes, of course, running means I need to change my morning routine or wake up earlier but it pays off so much! I get more work done faster, I write more and I feel generally happier and more joyful. What a cheap way of becoming more organised and energised. So today I think of running (and cycling, yoga or meditation) as an investment – daily one. If I do it, I am going to get more done in the day. If I do it for a week, year, decade, rest of my life, I am going to achieve so much more and a have way more time left to rest, re-charge and socialise too. So win-win.
    spotted during my morning run

    Last Thursday I had a difficult day. I was angry about the levels of oppression in 2020 UK reality but also about the idea that people choose the easier way of living, ending up locked in their own assumptions. I arrived to the place where I had to look hard at myself and start the change there. So on Friday I woke up, got out of the house and started running. I am determined to do it daily – weather permitting. Instead of worrying about my looks and my presence – I say hello to every single person on the way and I am validated with lovely morning smiles. I am realising that so far – after a week of running – I had only one car slowing down and no comments were made because I looked directly at the driver. He did not dare. I count my blessings and stay positive, light, joyful. I welcome every rose, every scent, every dose of oxygen as a blessing (how can one not in the times of the pandemic!). I get out of the house to work on my new habits and top myself up with even more positive energy. Then I go back home, have my breakfast and start serving others too.

    Why am I writing about this? A friend of mine asked me to do so – she had found my recent thoughts on the topic relevant and recommended writing about it. Additionally, I would also like to know how you deal with fitness? We all have different, individual experiences and I would love to learn from you. So let me know. To me, 2020 feels like a steep journey. I had to learn a lot academically, in my head, to get ready to step into my heart and my body. But it is so worth it.

    I know it might sound like a paradox – six months of thinking about something and arriving at the place where I “just do it”. But the truth is more complex – the change is gradual and does need space and time to reflect, to shift, to feel uneasy to the point of movement. And that’s OK.

    Today look back at my Strava stats only to realise that the change was indeed gradual. I had my ups and downs, and I am sure I will have many more. But I am doing better and I intend to do even more. I want, need to for others and I can get better at taking care of my physical health. As someone wise said to me: nothing is impossible.

    (A crucial aspect of this journey is friends and family – I am lucky to have wonderful support from both groups, which I am eternally grateful for. However, in my opinion, the change and the commitment to that change have to come from within).

  • WELLBEING

    Silent healing

    On some days, especially midway through the week, I feel really sad. I feel desperate to get on the bus and go to the city centre. Grab a coffee. Walk at the Waterfront. Visit a bookshop, or a florist maybe. Just do the ordinary things. You see, after years of social isolation, I have actually appreciated those ordinary things since I have moved to Bristol. I do not need a pandemic to remind me just how much I love my simple freedoms – freedom to move, to travel, to meet friends. For a long time, I did not take them for granted.

    So these days my voice is very silent. It feels very different to suffer from isolation where you are not one of the few, but one of many, one of all. If you happen to be from the EU, you know what I mean. In the last five years in the UK, I have aged a century.

    I finally feel accepted and supported by my colleagues and friends. Now that my Brexit scars have healed and we all suffer collectively, I spend a lot of time reflecting on racism in the UK in general. And so I learn from my BAME friends and their stories – because what happened to their families in the past (and is still happening now!), is actively happening to me too and my generation of continental Europeans and so I will have to explain this to my son one day. The increase in racism is affecting all of us, but I find it easier to stand up for my BAME friends than myself. I grow stronger silently, comforted that racism is getting called out finally.

    I come from a predominantly racist country. However, American Studies and my EU citizenship has educated me a lot about being united in diversity. I see so many shades of my minority identity in the UK. So many shades of my own European self and my Polish-ness. I teach my son to treasure it like a special set of skills and ability to view things from more than one perspective at least.

    These days I find my mid-weeks very sad because I feel the ripples of my past silent and very quiet, unnoticed isolation. I recall that cold hatred and ignorance I have experienced from people who used to dine at my very own table and suddenly, on the day of Referendum, turned their heads away and stopped talking to me (and that one female “friend” who texted me at 8 am to say I am not welcome!). In quiet moments like these, I am reliving those horrible days – it really wasn’t so long time ago. I also suffer from the increased racism amongst my Eastern-European friends – people I lose every day in rather extreme arguments about refugees, BAME communities and any form of immigration (yes, you would be surprised the comments one can here amongst Polish immigrants about other minorities still – it’s ridiculous). For many of my friends, Brexit fueled racism and divide it is still their present reality, but they blindly contribute to it too. And it is about to get worse next year for many.

    That makes me deeply sad. And so I keep my Polish morning yoghurt in the fridge, but I say my goodbyes to all my racist Eastern-European friends. In order to be more tolerant, I have to uproot myself almost completely and that process is very painful.

    But then, I take a deep breath. It’s not about national identities, never has been. It’s about safe places and kind people. I am in Bristol – the city of falling statues and people who understand that history happens now. The city that listens and learns from its own mistakes, slowly – yes – but surely. So I go to walk my dog and hear my neighbour greeting me from his window with a smile. He is a Welsh Bristolian with a wonderful smile and cheer. I chat with my postman about the lovely coffee shop and jazz in his favourite city of Cracow and I feel at home in the world. I do not miss that city, but I am really humbled that he does, more than me, it seems. Funny…and so very normal. I read the well crafted and timed stories from local business owners about their respect towards EU citizens and I marvel at their tact and kindness.

    The stories I tell my son will shape his sense of past, present and future so I talk to him about my experiences – even though the racists I mention are actually parents of his old friends. It’s not easy to navigate, but history is never easy. It is however somewhat easier after the move to a kinder city. The truth, no matter how hard and painful, is important for him to understand. And he does. He is mature and smart enough to see that. He now also understands his own sense of exclusion – he never fitted in, nor was accepted by many. So he finds his own tribes of quirky, extraordinary young people who will move all of us forward. I teach him that we are all responsible for finding language about racism, documenting and remembering it to ensure it grows weaker day by day. Individually and collectively. We are responsible for noticing common narratives and their impact on every single minority and smaller group – especially those who are NOT mentioned. We are responsible for noticing trends and ripples – and challenging people who initiate them.

    And most importantly, we are all responsible for healing and creating safe spaces for others to heal. I have healed, so it is possible. I will create those spaces in my counselling room. No matter our individual identity, I trust under the right conditions, we will all heal. I really, really hope so.

    Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

  • WELLBEING

    Undocumented

    She is silenced
    As for many hearts who can see
    She’s walking the corridors of her abandonment
    Lightly, with her eyes half-closed over her stories unspoken
    She is silenced

    She is conflicted
    She is never going to meet her Self again
    Searching for the echo of her inner battles
    She is picking up the lost pieces of her bleeding heart
    She is conflicted

    She is terrified
    Walking her path slowly in the half shadows
    And the half-truths of her untold stories
    She is avoiding both the moon and the sun
    She is terrified

    Her female ancestors weep
    As she enters her afterlife
    With her story undocumented

    This was written in February 2020. It is dedicated to a friend I lost. I pray she finds her way.

    Photo by Aleksei Алексей Simonenko Симоненко on Unsplash

  • WELLBEING

    Quietly, slowly shifting

    It’s quiet. I am writing a lot but in my journal, so it is all landing in my drawer. I am practicing writing, reflecting and sending all my negative and sad thoughts into the abyss of my black desk. I do not want to share the anger, grief, sadness and helplessness with the public – even though like for everyone else they all come in waves.

    Because I do not think it is justified for me to do so.

    Here is the truth: so far, I have been lucky. I have a job, two even. I have a business “in the cloud” and well established remote working habits. Yes, I am slower (affected by the lockdown and collective grief), but I am healthier than in the last five years. I have a weekly therapy as a part of my ongoing training, supervision, mentors and now also Advisory Board for Voxel Hub. I certainly do not feel alone.

    I have two weekly calls with friends – on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so this way I can keep in touch with them and check-in with myself too. I feel supported.

    My family have adjusted fast. We thrive in kindness and safety of our home. We meet and go away to our rooms to work, then meet again. We go for walks, walk the dog, cycle now and again. Seemingly life is actually better for us. Not having to commute to work takes away the wide range of sensory experiences that I do love, but also something that tires me out a bit. So we reconnect with nature instead.

    But there is also this dark cloud of deep sadness over our heads. So far the slogan was to “stay home” and we were slowly growing over the multitude of divides unified in the response to an illness. But our leaders are smart, too smart…so now we need to “stay alert” which implies divide again, distrust and war.

    There is no need for that anymore. Nature is showing us the way, keeping us in homes and neighbourhoods. Cutting down on our flights and silly holidays. More and more of us get it: we do not need to visit all those tourist locations to find another emptiness in our hearts. The meaning is just down the road, over the fence, in our streets, on Thursday night when we meet – weather we clap for NHS, others or just to support our own hopefulness.

    Like with the weather, I am shifting fronts too. Most days are good, some days are cloudy. All days are movement and change. Change is coming. It is unavoidable. And I welcome it – with a bit of anxiousness and with a lot of hope.

    Photo via Unsplash here.

  • POLSKI

    Nadal smutno

    …ale razem. Przez lata Brexitu było smutno mi i samotnie, ale teraz jakoś jest cieplej, bo wszyscy się pocieszami. Glupio mówić, że jak smutno razem to lepiej no ale jest jakoś lżej, bo wiemy, z czym walczymy i robimy to razem. Już teraz nie ma znaczenia narodowość, pochodzenie, klasa czy płeć. Każdy człowiek człowiekiem.

    Szkoda tylko, że takiej poważnej choroby trzeba aby ludziom się ludzkość przypomniała.

    Photo by Sergey Shmidt on Unsplash

  • WELLBEING

    The quiet

    It’s been over a month since my last blog post in English. That’s how much time I needed to rest and heal from the silence of Brexit. I have spent this time journaling about a quiet, calm life; accessing my personal self-care mechanisms and becoming a bit more available for my friends and colleagues. I finally stopped worrying. I stopped thinking about the future, focussed on the present more.

    I allowed myself to explore what was it about my situation during the last four years that really affected me. I am ready to look back, open up those wounds and re-integrate my learnings into my future. (This process, by the way, is a standard expectation of coaches and counsellors – however, I have always worked this way. It’s harder to open up wounds directly after an experience, but it’s so much more effective long terms. We then get to live without any hidden ghosts from the past).

    It’s terribly ironic that the fear of the unknown future, ignorance of knowledge and science, way too slow response from the people who are paid to represent and protect us, the stocking up on food, the social isolation is exactly what we are all going through right now – for other, more visible and obvious reasons of the global pandemic.

    I cannot help but see the parallels between what we are all going through collectively right now and what some of us have experienced for the last four years (with not just the unknown but at least three specific dates to worry about). The educated, more economically and politically aware people living in the UK (both EU and British citizens), struggled with exactly the same feelings that we face this month all around the world.

    We have spent weeks, then months, then years, awaiting clarity on the future of our country, economy and the European peace process. There is nothing more debilitating than the sense of uncertainty about the future. And so in the world of business, we have learned to actually future proof our plans – just like in the old marketing books – now actively practising the “political” in PESTEL analysis. We moved away from those rigid 12 months and 5 years of business plans to sets of business scenarios instead. We started thinking beyond political systems, geographical borders and took the legal areas of our business a bit more seriously. However, as we practised all those new, seemingly useful skills, we also felt devastated at heart. We shouldn’t have to be in this place. EU was created to help us foster our cultures while forgetting the need for passports or borders. Walls went down for a reason…now we could feel the bricks piling up again.

    We looked in astonishment at the level of ignorance in our country. We saw people smoothly shifting their views led by a well crafted public narrative focussing on “the other” (immigration), not the significant – freedoms, rights and a common strong, peaceful, inclusive economy. We started realising the cost of the underfunded, broken educational system. We also understood the smart agenda of not really educating the public on the actual benefit of the union since the early years of joining. We looked at the well-crafted campaigns, almost admiring each step. We watched in despair the racism and nationalism emerge even amongst our most educated friends – regardless of their nationality. For many, the word “security” did resonate with a hint of safety. Fed outdated nationalistic values worked for some. At heart, however, we all ached. We ached for clarity and some kind of sense of morals. Since ancient times choosing leaders meant voting for the strong, smart and innovative in return for care and protection. Angry and divided does not feel safe. We did not feel cared for, nor protected. Not a single one of us.

    We worried about our actual survival. Each time we approached a Brexit deadline we stocked up quietly for a few months. We learned to store dry and canned food, salt, matches and batteries. We learned to bake bread and grow our own fruit and veg. Not for a hobby but out of necessity – our leaders failed us so we had to learn to take care of ourselves. I cannot tell you how difficult, how heartbreaking it is to talk about this to our children. How terrifying it is for them. How angry it made us and how sad. In the 20th century, parents should not have to navigate such a complex reality.

    The hardest aspect of Brexit years was silence and social isolation, lack of public discourse on the reality of the situation. Some of us, the EU citizens, suddenly were positioned to be on the wrong side of history with no systemic support whatsoever. Somehow we took this on – we came from a place of racism anyway, so this was nothing new to us. Just a bit more terrifying – like a dark cloud still following us since our roots. But we understood that support is only given by people who feel safe, and British citizens did not feel so. Actually, all of us ached and longed for open conversations about the pain of the unknown and the participatory grief over the country we were gradually all loosing. All of us needed help. Yes, the public discourse perfectly utilised our cultural paradigm: it’s not polite to talk about politics at work and in other public conversations, and so even the word “Brexit” was deemed dirty. Every single Brexit deadline, we all fell into the midst of pain, anxiety, quiet anger, fear and disconcert. But we did so on our own. Each of us alone in our own quiet bubble. There were no songs sang together on balconies. There was only a quiet suppressed pain of our individual hopelessness. Those of us who have faced oppressive systems walked around in astonishment – how is this even possible? But we were silence too – our of respect for the local culture, we had to join in and shut up.

    I really, really wish it did not have to happen this way….However, the current response to the Coronavirus pandemic is at least collective. It unites us. It highlights the ignorance of those leaders who choose wealth over humanity. It shows the clear impact of those who focus on the health of their nation. It shows us clear proof of our economies on our climate. It closes our doors but opens our hearts. It inspires us to sing in unity. It is very similar to how many of us were feeling for years of Brexit reality but in this one way it is quite unique: it is open, collective and uniting. We open up, care for each other and start paying attention to knowledge and science. We reach out to our faiths for comfort but stop relying on it for practical solutions. We see some of our employers and other leaders step up, reach out and sometimes even listen. It is still testing and I fear we might lose some friends overreaction to this too, but we regain a sense of humanity.

    I hope this learning curve ends soon though and we can all start healing.

    Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash