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From Loneliness to Belonging

One of the not-so-fun side-effects of living undiagnosed ADHD for 42 years is that when you feel like you’re different, it’s hard to *really* connect with others. It's a lonely place. Due to all the energy I have expended trying to behave like I am ‘normal’, trying to fit in, and not to rock the boat, I’ve felt really seriously flipping lonely most of my life.

My bonkers childhood - My dad was in the army and we moved about a bit. At the age of two I went to a Belgian Kindergarten and ended up speaking French before learning English - it must have been odd for my mum. After Belgium, I spent 7 years of my childhood in Northern Ireland. In the 80s. During ‘The Troubles’. I was the English kid in a class of Northern Irish kids - and still have a scar on my head to prove how much I was liked. All the friends I played with near my home were a different religion to mine, so they went to a different school.

Even at home, I was the eldest child, my two younger sisters were born really close together, so they were like twins almost and shared a room. I felt left out and different. I felt that I didn’t even belong in my family.

I was an avid reader as a child, still am. I dealt with my loneliness by befriending all these marvellous characters from the books of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. I was a part of the Secret Seven, went on adventures with Silky and Moonface and just knew Matilda and I would be best friends. Enid Blyton also wrote books about life at boarding school - Malory Towers and St Claire’s which helped my young brain devise a bit of a cunning plan - I would belong at boarding school!

It was a massive stroke of luck that this was an option for me. The Army helps soldiers with subsidising boarding school fees for their children. So I campaigned for this for a bit, or a few years. In my head I created a ‘Business Case’, but probably in reality I just drove my parents to distraction with my relentless pursuit of the idea. What 10-year-old when asked what they want for Christmas says “I want to go to boarding school”?!

So fast forward a couple of years and a fairly traumatic year in a massive Army Secondary School in Germany, I won that campaign. My boarding school chosen, tuck box packed with loads of sweets and I was off. Aged 12. I remember watching my parents driving away from me on that first day and thinking WTF had I done. I took myself for a little walk and had a little cry, but then threw myself into the activities and distractions of boarding school. I flipping loved it. The structure, the routine, the being around my friends 24/7, the freedom from direct parental supervision. I’m still best friends with my best friend from school. And I did call my mum every day.

The logical next step - I was mostly OK at university, despite not really loving my Psychology degree - too theoretical, not very applied. I absolutely adored my Occupational Psychology Masters - really applied and practical, I really enjoyed that there were only about 12 of us too, so the social aspect of the course was a whole lot of fun.

I had loads of different jobs during the school holidays and while at uni and I was mostly a decent employee, working as a receptionist, waitress, pizza shop person, factory worker and barmaid. Apart from being a waitress in San Diego - I was flipping awful - in the UK we worked as a team in the restaurant, but in America I was in charge of everything for my section of the restaurant and could I bollocks remember at what stage all the different diners were in their meals. It was really stressful. I mostly got away with it though - my incredible ineptness was countered by friendliness, my quick apologies and my British accent (or sometimes Australian accent - depending on how the guests answered when they enquired where I was from) and got surprisingly decent tips.

And then after all that education, you have to find a proper job 😟 - After Uni, I stayed in the North East for work and was delighted to find myself working in an Occ Psychology consultancy where I was the first employee - I worked mostly alone in an office, but can't remember feeling lonely. I really loved my boss and the work we were doing was fab, I learnt loads and got to be super creative.

Sadly the role was made redundant and I spent the following decade-and-a-bit in corporate HR/Recruitment teams and working with long-term unemployed people. I was always that random and only Psychologist that my managers didn’t really know what to do with. And I was trying my hardest to fit in, not be totally rubbish with admin, but still trying to do psychology stuff and use my strengths.

I didn't feel like I belonged in HR because I have no CIPD qualifications and I didn’t identify as a “HR person”. I’ve lost count how many times I looked to get some further qualifications in that area, because I thought getting some additional letters after your name would result in some kind of instant belonging. Nope.

Another thing that made me feel different was being accused of being ‘posh’ every 3-and-a-half minutes. I was born in County Durham, in a very working-class family - my dad’s dad a miner and my mum’s dad a farm labourer and lorry driver. Due to moving about a bit, my accent is a bit strange. Nobody can place me. Which also added to that feeling of ‘otherness’ and of not belonging. To Northerners I sound “Southern” and to Southerners I sounded “Northern”. I’ve even had a random dude argue with me on here that I am from Bristol. I’ve been to Bristol once. For a day. And have driven past it maybe a couple of times... Perhaps my people are in the midlands somewhere?

Back to work… So, throughout all of this, I was a Chartered Psychologist, keeping all up to date with my continuous professional development, reading and learning loads, but not really spending a load of time with other Psychologists.

I felt really disconnected and that I didn’t belong to the profession. At all. I found so many of the academic papers soul-destroyingly dull to read and nigh-on impossible to practically implement in the real world. I found journals to be written for academics and not for normal humans, academic language is often too difficult to interpret. I’ve always thought it was a massive waste of an opportunity for us all to share and learn from each other. I’ve also found a certain snootiness within academia for practitioners. I felt like I was like Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, not a proper witch, a ‘mud-blood’. I also felt excluded from and fairly intimidated by the British Psychological Society as an organisation.

Moving to self-employment and learning to ask for help - I started my ‘last proper job’ and it didn’t end so well. So I thought I would go it alone and set up my own business. It was something I had wanted to do all along, but it was never 'the right time'.

However, by the time I got to self-employment, my self-worth and confidence was in the pits, I was crippled by a fear of criticism and possible rejection and believed I was rubbish at sales.

Of course, I made a few MASSIVE errors in that first 18 months:

  • Taking any work I could find, resulting in having far too much to do and experiencing complete overwhelm

  • Charging as little as possible

  • Being so bland and vanilla in my marketing/branding that nobody even noticed me

  • Not asking for help - because I could do it all myself, right?

  • Avoiding networking because it was too scary

  • Being massively rubbish with admin and finance stuff

  • Diving headfirst into going into business with someone I believed could do the things I couldn't do, and spending a year trying to please him / becoming increasingly defensive to any kind of criticism and totally destroying that friendship

  • All the while not spending enough time with my child and practically no time with my husband, resulting in the breakdown of that relationship (the husband, not the child - the child still likes me 😊).

A great thing that came out of this was spotting a part-time, maternity-cover Organisational Psychologist role in the NHS. Only the second time in my life where I actually worked in an organisation with other Psychologists! And this led me to my coach and wonderful friend Wendy Kendal.

Wendy was setting up her first Psychology Practice Accelerator Programme. And despite not even being able to afford it at the time, I took the leap and signed myself up. I thank the universe for that. The wonderful humans (pictured below) I met through this programme have helped me so much - and I felt I belonged, that I was seen and the loneliness started to creep away.

Due to Wendy’s programme, I:

  • Applied for and got a place on the Natwest Entrepreneur Accelerator = belonging to a community

  • Saw a post on here about #LinkedInLocal and decided to set up a Newcastle branch = new friends & community

  • Started my Business Psychology career Launch group coaching programme and found an awesome community of brilliant psychologists

  • Increased my confidence, and started charging my worth - so less overwhelm, resentment of working for peanuts and life got a little easier

  • Volunteered as a board member of the Association for Business Psychology - they run the best conferences - super practical and accessible. (I've since un-voluntereed, but still love them)

So thanks to finding Wendy, lots of really good things happened.

Finding my purpose - I met James through setting up #LinkedInLocal Newcastle and we became fast friends, we shared similar values and goals in life. He told me his dream was to set up a podcast, I actually quite liked the idea, so I set about figuring out how to do it. We got trained and set up our podcast where we interview inspirational people and share their stories. We’re really keen to learn how the people we interview found their passion: their true north!

Once The Inspiration North Podcast (AKA our ‘really expensive hobby’) was established, we figured out that we rather enjoyed working with each other. So we thought we would test our we-enjoy-working-together hypothesis further by applying to become Action for Happiness volunteers - we had seen and loved their calendars and read their books. So we facilitated our first Exploring What Matters 8-week course in Spring/Summer 2019 and loved it. We learned loads, met some truly wonderful people. And by the end of the course we were officially dating ❤️.

We’ve since facilitated another 8-week course and set up the Newcastle Happy Cafe (pre-Covid) at the Journey Cafe in Newcastle, and online for the last year). I am not exaggerating when I say that this wonderful community of humans has literally kept me sane over the past 12 months.

Getting back to the podcast - one of our early missions was to see if there were any common themes in the stories being shared with us, because we are generally curious and we had all this rich data and interesting stories. So we set about looking for someone who would help us with this research and were delighted to be introduced to Sonya Dineva, the Programme Leader on the MSc Occupational and Business Psychology courses at the University of East London. Sonya was setting up the Psychology Research Lab and she got some fab students together to help us analyse a bunch of our podcasts and look for the common themes. From this research we’ve got our own happiness & purpose framework - exciting.

We’re also in the middle of writing a book based on advice from the podcasts, with another Psychology student - Becca Amer. Can’t wait to get this finished and out into the world.

In the past year James and I have completed a bunch of courses, James in Gallup Strengths Coaching and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) with Russ Harris. He has also set up his own Coaching Practice - Zira Life. And I’ve completed the Co-Active Coaching Fundamentals course and an interesting introduction to Internal Family Systems (IFS) model. I’ve also almost completed Tara Mohr’s 6-month Playing Big Facilitator Programme too.

We also hired a business coach - Andrew Silver, to help us focus and prioritise (and keep us accountable). So through his guidance, our research, experience with Action for Happiness and our training, we have spent the last 6 months transforming Inspiration North from a really expensive hobby to an actual business. We’ve now got services and offerings to help people - while being paid, AKA “The Dream”.

Setting up Inspiration North has led us to numerous opportunities that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. We have a wonderful bunch of humans around us and we are having almost too much fun working together. And we have a mission! We believe in a world where everyone has a better chance of happiness, is empowered to realise their potential and is free to do it their way.

The Pirate stuff - About the same time I was getting to know James, I also came across a book - Be More Pirate by Sam Conniff Allende. While reading this book I experienced so many massive Ah-Ha (or Arrgghh) moments. It was such a relief discovering there are people who think in similar ways to me. It all made sense and I will forever be grateful for Sam for writing this book and for Alex for Captaining the community.

Reading this book and getting involved in this community set me off on my path to becoming the Captain of Work Pirates. You can read more about my journey to Work Pirates on the blog, but watch this space. So much exciting stuff is coming which I can’t wait to share with the world.

And finally finding me - Despite being a part of brilliant communities of really lovely humans and building my network to include the Happiness peeps, the Pirate crew, the Psychology gang and my Business besties. And despite finding a wonderful partner to create adventures with. There was still a niggle.

Ironically, I've spent my entire career trying to help people understand themselves and feel I've almost read every flipping book on personal development I could get my hands on, I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere until I understood me.

I understood my values, personality preferences (from multiple trait and state questionnaires - ENFP if you’re wondering 😉), my strengths, my overplayed strengths, my resilience style and how much of a daring leader I was. The final piece in the jigsaw was getting my ADHD diagnosis (which you can read all about here) which helped me realise that I am a wonderful mixture of being perfectly whole and a fallible human that can make bad decisions. Now I am all about boundaries, asking for help and a load of self-compassion.

Sharing my ADHD story has been so liberating. It feels like such a weight lifted. I received so many wonderful comments and messages from people around me and loads of strangers. I felt heard, and accepted.

And finally that I belong.

You won’t feel like you belong anywhere until you can accept and love yourself for who you are. It’s all about self acceptance and self-compassion.

Other things I have realised:

  1. You don’t need to have it all figured out, you can totally follow your passion/your heart/the fun and see where the adventure takes you.

  2. It’s so important to understand what YOUR success looks like - not anyone else’s - understand what success looks like for you, not what partners/families/schools/society/advertisers/’important people’ say success is.

  3. You don’t have to ‘like it, or lump it’, you don’t have to accept or allow something unpleasant or unwanted into your life. You can decide you don’t want something and walk away, you can make a change.

  4. Comparison is the absolute thief of joy - comparing ourselves to others and worrying about what people think of us are two tactics our brains use to keep us humans safe. This behaviour is ingrained in us. Know that it’s ok to be a bit different - in fact, all the fun humans are and not everyone has to like you.

  5. Who says it’s bad advice to mix business and pleasure?! It totally works for us.

  6. And bloody ask for help when you need it. Don’t let your fear of being hurt/rejected/ridiculed stop you from asking for help. Because if you don't ask, you won't get. And slowing drowning with a smile on your face isn’t much fun.

Thanks for reading 💙

Inspiration North Resources

Other Helpful Resources

I’ve had a look at the statistics and I find it all so sad - according to the Campaign to End Loneliness, 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely in England. This equates to twenty five million people.

General Loneliness Info:

Some useful ADHD and Loneliness Articles:

(Originally posted on LinkedIn)

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