I have been meaning to resume blogging for a while, but needless to say these intentions were thwarted by an all-consuming personal challenge I undertook over the past few months. I have been training for an open ocean swim in support of Cure Cancer Australia. What I thought was going to be a fitness and fundraising challenge ended up also being a battle with myself and with my deep-seated anxiety over a fear of the ocean that I didn't know I was housing.
I have learned some important lessons about myself – and about the way that I conduct and teach - along the way, and will use my foray back into the CE blogosphere to reflect on these lessons.
I started struggling early on. Despite being a strong swimmer I started having panic attacks in the ocean, and on occasion having to be rescued and brought back to the beach on a surfboard. And then I started to panic on the way to ocean swimming training, or when just being near the beach and thinking about swimming in the ocean. Anyone who has struggled with panic and anxiety can tell you that the anxiety about the anxiety is the worst part of anxiety because that is what stops you from doing things, and makes the anxiety spiral beyond a particular situation or circumstance.
I started to feel disappointed in myself and beating myself up over this anxiety which was quickly consuming me and spilling over into everything else; I started feeling like it was too much, like I was in over my head (literally and figuratively), and I started thinking of pulling out. I was disappointed in myself, as worried about failing as I was about drowning, plus worried that I was letting my team and my family and friends who were supporting me down.
I shared my anxiety with CW and MD – wise women who I am lucky enough to conduct and to have as friends. Both encouraged me by telling me to ‘conduct’ myself. And in my anxious state I thought that if I failed I was going to be letting them, and all of my other participants, and all of Conductive Education down too -- if I couldn’t ‘conduct’ myself, how could I imagine I could conduct others? Very unhelpful headspace; not at all in the positive and be kind to yourself approach I would like to think I encourage my participants to use when they are trying to work through something difficult.
However, within the brilliant advice ‘conduct yourself’ was the answer – it enabled me to change my thinking and headspace. I had to step back and remind myself what was important in CE as I tried to figure out how to ‘conduct myself’. Conductive Education is not a judgement on success or failure but about trying, and then trying again, and then trying something different, and continuously seeing new solutions when one doesn’t work. It is about rewarding effort so that our fragile egos are not defeated by failure. It is about not giving up because something is not working or going to plan, being willing to have another go.
I had to remind myself to value and celebrate small achievements and steps along the way to the bigger goal. I had to remind myself to focus on what was going well and on building on that instead of dwelling on what was not working. I had coaches and mentors believing, I could do it even when I didn't believe I could - how powerful to accept their vision instead of letting my own disbelief hold me back! I didn’t always believe I was going to be able to do it but knowing that someone else believed in me made me think that it was going to be possible.
I was training with a group but so caught up in my own anxiety that I thought I was the only one struggling – I had to look beyond myself and connect to the journey and struggles of the others I was training with, to learn from them, to let them teach, inspire, and help me, and to accept their encouragement; to let them lift me. I also had to remember that I was doing this for them – someone actually told me that the reason they came back after they had a rough ocean training session was that they saw me keep coming back and trying, knowing how frightened I was. Who would think that watching me struggle with my anxiety could inspire someone else? I stayed with it because of the support of this group and our shared goal, because people kept supporting me when I was struggling - even more so in fact. The shared goal was bigger than the physical challenge – we were all there with personal reasons for wanting to fundraise for cancer research and this made for a powerfully connected group, a group of individuals prepared to put their own personal glory aside for the benefit of a teammate and friend. I nearly missed out on being a part of this group because I couldn’t see beyond myself, and I think back to some of the amazing groups I have conducted over the years and remember times when my participants have surpassed expectations because they were lifted and inspired by the group they were working with.
I stayed with it because of the amazing support and encouragement from people around me beyond my training squad - family, friends, clients, and especially my husband Alexander and his constant, quiet, non judgemental support and ability to stand by me on this self imposed personal hell. During the worst of the anxiety I was feeling more anxious with every new donation or encouraging message because I was worried I’d be letting everyone down. I had to step back to realize that people were supporting me unconditionally, supporting that I was even trying, and applauding how hard I was trying. I had to stop feeling like I was failing so I could remember to be grateful for the people around me supporting me. And remember to be grateful that I was able to take part in something like this, and be grateful for the health and wellness of the people around me, and be grateful that I live in such a beautiful place and that I had the opportunity to be doing something like this somewhere so wonderful for a cause I am passionate about.
There were other conductive lessons – the personal experience of using breath, rhythm, and movement; counting while moving – counting strokes, counting breaths, guessing how many strokes to the next buoy, singing to myself while swimming – I pulled out many of my favourite tricks of the trade during training.
I had a real dose of lessons in setting the wrong goal; lessons in having to change the goal along the way; lessons in breaking a large goal into bite sized bits, lessons on working on different segments of the goal, sometimes out of sequence, and letting go of the big goal in order to be able to do what I needed to do to work towards it – seeing the trees not just the forest. I also had a real dose of what happens when you train the wrong thing -- I was trying to physically out-train anxiety instead of trying to learn how to manage the anxiety. When I shifted the focus of my training and focussed on the right thing I was able to move forward.
There were also experiences that really made me relate to what I see with my participants during CE sessions. For example, sometimes the more you think about something the harder it gets; sometimes fear of failing actually can interfere with trying. When I was stressed or anxious I had trouble taking in instructions and remembering things and the more information I was being given when I was feeling like that the more frazzled and overloaded I became – and I thought about times when I have overloaded my participants.
I had to learn how to admit I was struggling; I had to ask for help; I had to accept help that was being offered and trust in the people who were helping me. I had to find a way to be the best that I could be in even the hardest and most frightening moments and to know that I was doing my best and accept that effort, even if it wasn’t as good as someone else’s effort – in other words to judge myself on my best effort in a particular moment, to be orthofunctional. Such big battles I had with myself over things that I regularly expect of the people I conduct!
I could go on. But if you’ve read this far you deserve a happy ending already and I hope that this will suffice. I made friends. I completed the training program and a 3km swim in an ocean rock pool. I was part of an immediate team that fundraised nearly $40 000 and our team was a part of a much larger team that has now raised over $500 000 for Cure Cancer Australia. On the day of the open ocean race mother nature flexed muscles bigger than mine and the swim conditions were too dangerous for many of us – though many in my team did complete the event on the day I did not, but I still felt good about my achievement and effort. I battled myself on many fronts and won – or at least learned when I couldn’t win. And I learned to conduct myself in the ocean, the real one and the unpredictable and ever changing ocean of life.