Victoria Mary Clarke: It's about time I started to channel my inner bitch
For anyone used to people pleasing, the thought of asserting oneself can be terrifying. Yet when the alternative is to end up resentful, isn't it time to bitch
I turned 50 this year, a scary thing. To distract myself, I decided to do two even more scary things. The first was to ride a motor bike (I have been phobic about motor bikes since I was three, following an incident with a Harley Davidson).
The second was to start channelling my inner bitch.
The motor bike was terrifying. With teeth clenched, I managed to get my feet on the pedals and crawl along on the main road, but I tried to get off and abandon it when we hit a pot-holed dirt track, and it started skidding. "I give up," I insisted. "I was wrong! I can't do this!"
Rosa, my 15-year-old niece intervened. "You call yourself a life coach!" she said, fixing me with a ferocious face. "You won't be much use to anyone else if you can't life coach yourself!"
I told her she was channelling her total bitch, and a few other things, but she was resolute and she made me drive the thing all the way to the end. It was an admirable achievement. I thanked her and said yes, I have just qualified as a life coach, and yes, I do want to be able to coach other people through the bumpy bits on the road.
There is a programme on telly where every week they find someone with a total disaster of a house, so bad that the presenter practically faints when she sees it. When I met my first life coach, my life was that total disaster. Or so it seemed to me. An epic, unthinkable, hideous mess. It was 2000. I had just got out of The Priory, where I was treated for depression and coming home had depressed me even more. The house was a tip, littered with empty bottles, overflowing ash-trays and mouldy take-aways and in the middle of the mess sat Shane, the love of my life, calmly self medicating and quite oblivious to everything.
I had the number of a life coach. I didn't know what a life coach was, but I was willing to give her a shot, although I could not imagine her being any use.
"How does this work?" I asked her. "What do you do?"
"Let's meet and have a chat," she suggested. "How about the Savoy?"
Luxury hotels, especially old- fashioned ones, can have a miraculously soothing effect, I find. And so I was feeling more optimistic just admiring the opulence of the carpets, when a very business-like lady with a brief case appeared and introduced herself as my coach. I was prepared to tell her every detail about my awful life, about how I was a hopeless failure and utterly miserable. But she didn't give me a chance.
"So what do you want from coaching?" she asked me. Her question flummoxed me. "What do I want? I don't know," I said. After she had asked a lot of questions, it transpired that what I immediately wanted was success in my career, to give me a boost in confidence and a raison d'etre. Within two weeks, I had an article in the London Evening Standard, flagged with a photo on the cover. What I learned from the experience was that it didn't really matter how awful my life was, I could still pick a goal that was practical and achievable and I could make progress in the direction that I wanted to go. Life coaching, I learned, is about moving you forward in a direction of your choosing, not swirling you round and round in everything that makes you miserable.
The next time that I got life-coached, it was not by a lady in a suit. I had found myself yet again in a deep, dark, dreadful hole of despair (a recurring theme in my life) and I was convinced that there was no way out. This time, I didn't have the motivation to think of calling a coach, but I did call upon spiritual help, because I was certain that if there was a God, it was determined to give me a hard time and I wanted to know what the hell it was up to.
With only a notebook and pen and without having to leave my bed, I began to get life-coached by an invisible being, which introduced itself as an angel. I did not believe it was an angel, but neither did I disbelieve it, I was intrigued. The coaching came in the form of automatic writing, which turned into a dialogue. The gist of the message was that if I was determined to think of my life as a hopeless mess, then it would continue to be that way, but if I began to think of anything at all to be grateful for, if I began to think of anything that I could do to make things better, and actually started taking positive action, I would find that things could indeed get better.
It was not easy for me to think of anything positive about my life. I have had a powerful imagination and a passion for drama ever since I was a tiny child, and things have always seemed to be either really, really wonderful or really, really dreadful, and when they get dreadful, they have a tendency to get stuck like that. So it took a lot of patience and humour and gentle coaxing on behalf of this angelic coach to get me to see things differently. But having this creature on my side, always listening and responding and guiding had a remarkable effect. And as I began to see progress, and to be pro-active, I noticed that support began to appear from all around me, from my editors, from interviewees, from friends, and even from total strangers.
From that time on, I have taken full advantage of coaching, from invisible beings and also with a life coach called Anne Kelly who I interviewed some years ago for the Sunday Independent after being prompted to contact her by the angel.
As a result of all the coaching, I have found myself doing things which I could not have imagined were possible, given that my life had seemed so hopeless. I began writing regularly for magazines and newspapers, (including a Vogue cover story). I wrote and published a book of angel advice (which is endorsed by Kate Moss), I began teaching inspirational workshops, and gave lectures at Trinity on public speaking. I trained as a yoga teacher, presented a gardening programme and got a regular radio show. I also had a lot of fun, got to stay in luxurious castles, and to test drive a new Aston Martin on the Cote D'Azur. I say all of this not just to show off, but also to prove that even someone who thinks that life holds only misery can discover all kinds of possibilities if they put their minds to it and have someone to guide, support and encourage them.
Because coaching (from visible and invisible creatures) had moved me forward very rapidly, and when left to my own devices, I have floundered and procrastinated, I got very curious about how exactly the coaching works. When Anne Kelly asked me what was stopping me from having the success that I wanted with my book, I told her that I didn't believe anyone would publish it. And when she asked me what my agent had said, I told her that I didn't believe an agent would want me, so I hadn't actually got an agent. When we established that my beliefs were both limiting and unfounded, I contacted Marianne Gunn O'Connor, who told me that she loved the book, and the book did indeed get published. But without having been challenged in that way, the book would still be gathering dust and I would still be resenting the universe, or the general public or my father.
I asked a number of people who have had coaching and they all agreed that a key element in the success seems to be the collaboration, joining forces not only to achieve one's goals, but also to pick goals that are going to be beneficial.
One of my goals, as a teenager was to hang out with famous people that I admired. To be seen with them would make me feel special, I figured. I did achieve that goal, I did get to hang out with lots of famous people, but their success and popularity only made me feel more inadequate. When I sat down and discussed some goals which could give me a sense of fulfilment and self-esteem, I got far more rewarding results.
Having established that fulfilment for me comes from inspiring and uplifting other people, and with this curiosity and admiration for the coaching process, I decided to train as a life coach myself, and to set about sharing some of the things that had worked well for me. One of which is now channelling my inner bitch.
Hmmmmm, with teeth clenched you might be saying at this point. 'So what has being a bitch got to do with inspiring and uplifting people?'
As part of the training, we were coached by a team of professional coaches and we had to do all kinds of exercises, designed to discover what motivates us, what makes us feel good and also what drags us down and depletes our energy. We did this thing called 'Tolerations and Boundaries' which basically shows you what you are putting up with, what really annoys you and causes you to complain, and what exactly you can do to change those things.
Topping the lists of things that annoyed us all were grievances in our relationships with other people, everyone from parents and partners to work colleagues and neighbours. The problems were simple. Things like putting up with doing all the cleaning, cooking and shopping even if we both worked full time. Things like feeling obliged to listen to a friend unload endless complaints about everyone in her life but who never seemed to notice that we are not interested. Things like having family members come to stay whenever they felt like it, making a colossal mess and talking loudly when we were trying to watch a bit of telly . . .
As a group of people who were all dedicated to improving lives, the lists of things that we were putting up with was astonishing. And so were the excuses that we were making "Oh it wouldn't be worth upsetting him/her," was the main excuse, as well as "Oh well, he/she doesn't realise what a pain they are," or "It's OK, I'm fine, I can put up with it, I wouldn't want an argument."
I realised that much as we might all want to be thought of as lovely, kind, patient, saintly people, we end up exhausted and seething with resentment which doesn't help us and doesn't actually help anyone else especially when we allow people to trample all over us while we enquire if they would like a latte or a cappuccino with that.
So one day, while I was talking to my coach Sarah McCandliss about how amazing her clients find the tolerations and boundaries exercises, the 'Channelling Your Inner Bitch' workshop was born.
We put the idea out to some friends.
"When is it? Where is it? Sign me up!" they said.
The people who responded were not just one type . . . there were fashion designers, socialites, trustafarians, teachers, writers and home-makers aged from 21 to 70, male and female. Out of all my male friends, only Bob Geldof said that he was too saintly to want to channel his inner bitch.
There is a movie called Joy in which Jennifer Lawrence channels her inner bitch beautifully, and tells everyone where to get off, in order to get her miracle mop business off the ground. It made me realise that it may take courage to stand up for oneself, but the rewards could be life changing.
Sarah and I held a trial workshop, to test the format. Weirdly, when we asked everyone to nominate the biggest bitch of all time, David Cameron topped the poll, but Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay, Anne Robinson, Claire Underwood, and Maggie Thatcher also featured, as did people's bosses.
Obviously, most people did not want to go from being a people pleaser to being a total bitch, and besides that might not create harmonious relationships! But we did ask people to role play pretending to be a colossal bitch, just to feel what it was like to be assertive, authoritative and confident. And when they managed to do it, they also looked and sounded like completely different people.
There were priceless moments when someone had Gordon Ramsay talk to their lazy boyfriend and someone else had Alexis Colby talk to his boss.
Naturally, a lot of people (including me) are afraid of being bitches, and of not being liked. We live in a world where bending over backwards to suit others is seen as a virtue. And we all want to be saints.
But what I had not realised was that by being passive aggressive, (bashing pots and dishes around the kitchen, slamming doors, sighing a lot and sulking) and also by bitching to everyone who will listen about how insensitive someone is while pretending to be fine to their face, gets you nowhere. I make it impossible for anyone to know what they are doing wrong and what they could potentially change.
For my part, I have always had a tendency to let the small things add up (the teabags in the sink, the overflowing ash trays, the really loud telly) until one day I just lose it and smash things and storm out. But after practicing being clear and assertive in coaching, I have been able to sit down calmly and outline to my partner the things that are deal-breakers and the things that will put a smile on my face instead of a grimace. It amazed me to discover that he did prefer to see a smile, if at all possible and he was prepared to make changes in order to facilitate that happening. He even gave up smoking.
Astonishingly, I am finding that when I tell people that I don't have time to do what they want me to do because I am prioritising my own stuff, instead of resenting me for it, they appear to respect me. And if at first they are miffed, they generally get used to it!
It also means that they feel safe to tell me what I am doing that annoys them (bossing them around, always choosing the restaurant and the movie) and there can be an uncomfortable period of adjustment while we all get used to the new behaviour.
For anyone who is used to people pleasing, even the thought of asserting oneself can be terrifying. But the feedback from everyone who has participated in our workshop so far suggests that problems which we might have built up to be insurmountable tend to magically shrink back into proportion with a change in perspective, a bit of support and a lot of dancing around, dressed up as Joan Collins!
And so far, nobody plans to go back to slamming doors and bashing pots around.
The next 'Channelling Your Inner Bitch' workshop is on April 3 at the Central Hotel, Dublin 2. For tickets and further information, check out victoriamaryclarke.com
Sunday Indo Living