I regularly get told how brave people think I am. Mainly because I’ve done some ballsy things… like quitting my corporate career and setting up my own bizz, standing on stage in front of hundreds of people around the world as a keynote speaker, travelling solo to far flung places and even trying out extreme sports.
But it wasn’t always so.
Yesterday I jumped off a cliff whilst canyoneering in the Philippines, and it prompted me to reflect on my journey so far. Especially on how far I’ve come, considering at at one point, fear took over my life and stopped me doing so many things.
Retracing my steps has helped me to remember where my fears came from, and ultimately who I really am, in order to overcome them.
As a little girl, all freckled face and curly red hair, I feared nothing. Like most children I assume?
But my trepidation knew no bounds and as result, I often ended up that ‘lost child’ who’s worried mother would be paged on the intercoms of theme parks, supermarkets and firework displays… to name a few. I’d just wonder off, distracted by something interesting, or sometimes even wilfully escape my parents dominion in favour of something more exciting, blissfully unaware of danger.
To my mother’s horror, as I’ve latterly found out, my curiosity also extended to an interest in talking to strangers. Which to me as a two year old with conversation skills and a remarkable vocabulary was the highlight of being able to talk.
My mum’s attempts to channel my adventurousness led to an endless list of organised activities from around the age of four and a half.
First, there was figure skating.
Every Saturday morning, she would take me to Altrincham Ice Rink, having enrolled me in the beginners class. This seemed a great choice as I’d been roller skating around Woodford Close (my street slash whole world as a child) for the best part of a year. Initially I set sail on the classic 80’s Fisher Price extendible blue skates. You might remember them? The ones you could wear over your shoes, with awkward orange wheels that made a distinctly gravelly plastic sound as they ground over concrete. My only issue was that I couldn’t go very fast, so I begged my parents to buy me some with rubber wheels.. I became the very proud owner of Minnie Mouse roller skates with Velcro top fastenings and regularly grazed knees. Then a skate board, and finally my favourite, rollerblades!
As soon as my little toes touched the ice, I was a natural. But the reason I became interested? Well, that was down to the pretty ice skating outfits of course. My first pair of lace up white ice skates and bright royal blue diamanté flecked leotard had an air of professionalism I found enticing. Come to think of it dressing up is something that’s stuck with me, where still today putting on my ‘uniform’ helps me feel prepared to perform on stage and in business…. Although today that’s a blow dry, high heels and Karen Millen dress.
Apparently my ice skating skills were way ahead of the other children. Many of whom were still scooting about on those awful blue used skates that you hired and gave back. When I asked mum why I stopped skating, she said it was because I was a menace to my instructor and that she refused to teach me anymore.
I recall us all forming a train on each lesson, like little cygnets following Mother swan and taking turns to follow or copy her. However, mum told me as soon as her back was turned, I’d be off skating, backwards, towards the other side of the ice rink and when we were asked to perform specific movements or little choreographed combinations, I was more interested in doing the things I found fun than the things I was supposed to be doing.
I remember her big blonde 80’s perm and all in one ski outfit adorned with several official looking badges. But I also remember the way she would look at me disapprovingly when I’d gone off piste, as she insisted her protégés behave with a sense of decorum. ‘That’ look is something I ended up getting used to receiving from figures of authority.
My inability to take instruction meant sadly I would never be destined for a career in figure skating and perhaps it served as a warning for later life. As it turns out, other people’s dislike of my natural curiosity is often how I’ve found out a lot of things ‘weren’t right’ for me anyway.
As a very bright kid I really struggled at infant and junior school with teachers who didn’t know what to do with me. I had all the basics nailed well before I entered education, so would finish my work before anyone else, become bored and find myself in some mischief or other. They seemed to mistake my gregariousness for something bad, and would tell me that I was ‘naughty’ to ‘stop’ and to ‘behave’ myself.
I really genuinely didn’t understand what it was doing wrong, and thank goodness Education has moved on somewhat since then, but the root cause of my fears about being myself started with ‘teachers’. I’ve also been in the same situation on and off through the years with line managers too, who didn’t know what to do with me either.
I can see now that I was creative, entrepreneurial and enterprising from a very young age with the ability to plan, organise and orchestrate many a grand plan, but that wasn’t what little girls were supposed to be like.
Next came gymnastics (more shiny leotards), followed by archery, trampolining, netball, football, drama, dance, the flute and finally horse riding at aged 10.
With all but horse riding I’d be massively into the activity du jour, but then when I reached the limit of my own ability (or someone else patience) I’d get bored, give up, and head off in search of the next shiny thing.
I didn’t believe in wasting my time on things I wasn’t good at, interested in or didn’t excite me enough. I always thought this was a bad thing about me, but it turns out once I understood myself, my passion and enthusiasm became by biggest assets. I just wish I’d realised to play to my strengths earlier, instead of trying to fit in.
With horses, my attention was held differently. There was just so much to learn! Not just the riding but the stable management and care side too. I immersed myself in learning as much as I could. Riding lessons, pony club camps, reading every book ever written on veterinary horse care and management. I was horse mad! Perhaps these were the early signs of someone destined to become an expert, as I enjoyed and could handle depth of knowledge.
Seeing the impact my latest fascination had on me, keeping me occupied without my usual eventual disinterest, after 3 years mum and dad agreed to buy me a pony!
This was the arrival of my best friend in the world for the next 12 years, 15 hands high Chestnut gelding, Tamarin. We did everything together galloping through a life of showjumping, cross country, shows every Sunday and seeing each other morning, evening and weekends. I was devoted to him.
What I didn’t appreciate until much later, was Tamarin was a very safe and ‘honest’ horse that would literally take care of me on our adventures and when I started riding other horses commercially at age 16, thinking that riding would be my future career, I found out painfully through broken bones and shattered confidence that not all horses, are safe.
Horse riding also taught me a lot about bravery. It was the only the third thing I’d ever tried that gave me an adrenaline rush! The first was water slides and the second rollercoasters, but I couldn’t have riding them as a hobby. Although, I would have happily spent all my time in water/theme parks if I could.
Rollercoasters were my best thing, mum couldn’t abide them, but fortunately Dad was game. I have very happy memories of our days out together. Just C&D (Clare and Dad) to Camelot in Preston, Blackpool Pleasure Beach or if I was really lucky.. Alton Towers.
Adrenaline on reflection, is an addiction and something I’ve chased over the years, with keynote speaking becoming my adult high. Back then, I would go on the same ride over and over again, enjoying the sensation of being thrown around at high speed, dicing with danger. But in fact, both experiences are rather similar.
Preparing to go on stage is kind of like waiting in the queue for a new ride, having to suppress your fears in order to buckle up on the platform. The first few lines spoken are like climbing the first incline, feeling each sentence like the click click clicking of the track as the car is pulled to the top, then the free fall of inertia that pushes you on, through the loop the loops and chicanes as your audience reacts to what you’ve said.
Having professed my love for them, however, my first memory of being really frightened is also from a theme park. Mum and Grandma had taken me for a day out in Blackpool, but didn’t want to go on any of the rides. I must have been around 7 years old and I decided to take myself into Noah’s Ark, without permission.
I remember it being like a house of horrors, with huge beastly animals coming to attack me, one giant giraffe in particular reaching it’s head maniacally towards me… In the dark, where the floors moved and I couldn’t work out how to get out. This was also my first experience of being fully overwhelmed and unable to stop crying. I was looking up at the adults around me for help, but help didn’t come.
I don’t remember how I got out, but I do recall being beside myself as mum comforted and chastised me simultaneously. Years later, I went back to the same place and realised it was actually a walk through attraction and not at all frightening. But to this day, I can’t go into a fun house or haunted house without being transported back to that very moment!
That feeling of complete loss of emotional control and fear is what I know now to be a panic attack and something I would come to know again later on.
My doubts about myself grew through my experience of other girls. With horses came the stables and with the stables also came the stable’s girls. (FYI horsey girls are renowned the most notoriously bitchy collective when it comes to sports). They could be mean, cruel and at times thoroughly unkind. Most were a lot older than me, and ‘stables life’ came with a pecking order that us younger ones were at the bottom of.
I learned the next era of my negative programming through my experiences in and out of the horse world, including the notion that it wasn’t a good idea to be yourself, in case someone else didn’t like you.
This new ‘code’ of fears was backed up through the awkward teenage years at high school, where everyone acts like idiots to each other whilst vying for a place in the hierarchy of life. I would take anything mean said to me, straight to heart and spend time figuring out what I could change about myself to fix whatever it was. At the time I thought high school would last forever, and our popularity in those 5 years would define our future existence…. Wow I wish I could go back and tell my 14 year old self a few things about life!
Fear, crept up on me as I got older. Fear to speak up in class incase I would be seen as a pest, fear about people judging what I looked like or of who I was if I gave my opinion. In response I got pretty good at putting on a show for the audience, including getting unhealthily skinny at one point, smoking cigarettes and making other unhealthy life choices to ‘be cool’. I realise now, other peoples negative reactions to me made me not like myself very much so I made every effort in trying unsuccessfully, to be someone else. Someone more acceptable to others.
I realised something had gone terribly wrong when one time at aged 22, I didn’t like roller coasters anymore and was scared instead of thrilled. Literally panicking and begging to get off the ride I’d just waited 2 hours to embark.
After a riding accident, I was too scared to ride horses anymore.
After a fall snowboarding, I was too scared to turn down the mountain.
After getting in the water to dive for the first time, I was too scared to trust the regulator and breathe below the surface.
After bad experiences at school I was too scared to speak up, set myself ridiculously high targets to achieve and became a perfectionist.
I had always thought of fear as two separate boxes. One was physical fear of making myself do something like jump the horse or make the back turn on a snowboard and the other, fear of making myself do something like present in front of a room of people… or be myself without being judged.
But I can now see that one fear fed the other. Lack of self confidence makes you scared of EVERYTHING, stops you doing exciting things and can make you behave in pretty crazy ways in order to justify your own existence. This is the point at which fear becomes a problem and something that has the potential to massively hold you back. For me, outward over confidence became my defence system for the reality of a real lack of the stuff.
When I eventually reached the workplace, I would worry about being good enough constantly and feel the drive to prove myself over and over again which was so unnecessary.
I recall being in meetings as a graduate trainee, knowing what I wanted to say, having an idea or really interesting opinion and NOT being able to speak up. When I tried, it wouldn’t come out right. I’d get so self conscious that I’d be thinking more about what other people were thinking about me than what I was saying and completely lose my train of thought.
That kind of experience made me doubt myself even more, so I started seeking reassurance from other people. Not knowing yet that the secret to being successful is the ability to reassure yourself.
Despite this, I was a high achiever who experienced outward success. But with my lack of self confidence this meant every promotion worsened my perfectionism until I was constantly waiting for someone to figure out I was an imposter. This was not a happy place to work from I can assure you.
When I encountered a bad manager they found my constant flow of ideas, creativity and excitement about changing the world annoying and like my teachers, would crush my spirit with their words and actions, just because they could.
I’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing leaders who saw my spark and did everything the could to help me develop. But by that point, my fears of being good enough had turned into pretty big insecurities that would result in me sometimes not being able to control my emotions too well, and like that time in Noah’s ark, I once had an panic attack when I got bad feedback.
It was one performance review, with one particularly awful manager, who had despite me delivering a set of impressive results, tore strips off me about my character. This triggered a reaction in me that prompted me to do something about it.
I enlisted help in a number of ways including a therapist, mentor, coach and close friends (who I acquired after moving to Birmingham for University) to unpick every layer of my own conundrum. I’m not ashamed to admit I needed a lot of support to change. I hate the stigma attached to mental health and emotional well being so am proud to say I struggled and overcame my fears through working on it and working things out.
Ironically, it all started with me being able to accept myself, just as I am. It is hard to revisit the painful experiences that turned into negative beliefs about oneself and even harder to change your ways once they have become ingrained as coping mechanisms, but I am living proof that it is possible.
Once I started to believe in myself, have compassion for myself and just be myself, I found the confidence to present my ideas at work and did some pretty awesome stuff that meant I didn’t need to prove myself to others anymore, because my work spoke for itself.
With my results being heralded with external awards offers started coming in for me to speak publicly. I found physically getting on stage the first time to be one of the biggest challenges of my life, but once I was up there, I found myself in flow like never before. Everything clicked into place, I could be myself, tell my stories and people liked and respected me, just as I was.
My first major global gig was in Australia, in Sydney at the biggest marketing conference in the country in-front of 500 people as the opening International keynote speaker! I absolutely smashed it and spent the next 3 weeks solo travelling around Australia, basking in the afterglow of a job well done.
What came next was a new rollercoaster of adventures, doing all the things I was scared of and proving to myself that ‘I could do anything’ again. Solo travel was and is one of my biggest confidence boosts. I’ve found myself in some pretty hairy situations and discovered I’m more than capable of coping and setting myself right again.
After a 10 year hiatus on hose riding, I found the courage in 2016 to get back in the saddle and ride again, and have since taken on a horse share of an ex-racehorse called Francis Albert who I can now gallop along the racetrack at our yard in Enfield at weekends. I’ve also been able to enjoy riding experiences in the countries I’ve visited including beach rides in New Zealand, swimming on horseback in Indonesia, galloping the plateaus of Africa and even riding an Arabian stallion across the desert in the UAE.
I found the courage to try diving again in 2017 and have since become a qualified diver through PADI, doing my open water in Mozambique and advanced certificate from an island just off Zanzibar. I’m now the kind of girl who after being too scared to put my head underwater and breathe in scuba gear, is now happy to be 30 feet down and remove my mask and regulator.
In the last 12 months I’ve done things I thought I’d never do for the first time like caving in the dark in Vietnam, paddle boarding down the rivers of Cambodia and shark cage diving in South Africa.
But by far, my biggest achievement has to be letting go of my fear of not having a regular income, realising I wasn’t right for the corporate world, quitting the city job I wasn’t happy in and starting my own company, under my own name, living my own dream of combining work and travel.
I don’t recognise myself when I think back to being afraid all the time… but it really isn’t all that long ago.
Who I’ve found again since doing the work on myself, is that gregarious little girl with boundless curiosity and enough ambition to take on the world. She is who I really am. I’d been suppressing her all this time because I didn’t find acceptance externally. All I had to do was reconnect with her, embrace her and accept her myself in order for all the awesome stuff to come my way.
It really is liberating to be able to now be able to figuratively and literally stand on the cliff edge as I did yesterday and despite feeling scared, tell myself to close my eyes and leap. To jump into swirling water below not knowing what’s down there with a belief as deep as what I’m jumping into, that I’ll be ok. And to rise back up to the surface, triumphant and exhilarated that ‘I did it’ all by myself.
I’m by no means the finished article and have a long way to go.. but I think that 2019 could be my year to sky dive, in more ways than one