Wanting something very badly — a change of career, a dream holiday, praise for a job well done — does not necessarily equip us with the skills or confidence to have a go at achieving it. Sometimes the first step is to acknowledge our fears and anxieties and give ourselves permission to back out of the whole process; only then can we settle down to the tasks in hand.
A few years ago, I was stuck in a rut so deep I could barely see over the edge to glimpse the world of possibilities beyond. I was approaching my 40th birthday and working freelance in a job that was steadily bringing in less income as time went by, and which no longer fulfilled me the way it once had. I was single, and my social life was virtually non-existent, partly because of the hours I was working. To top it all, my best friend — also freelance and a few years older than I am — had somehow found time in her own busy life to find a long-term partner and fall pregnant. I was thrown into turmoil by the realisation that the way I was living my life was deeply unsatisfying. Something had to be done. But what? And how? And when?
And therein lay my difficulty — I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do beyond a vague feeling that I needed to change my job and get a better balance between life and work. But then as I reflected on my dilemma and started casting about for ideas, I realised that actually it was almost as if it didn’t really matter where I started making changes: as in any self-regulating system, make one change anywhere in my life and everything else would change in response to it. And so I decided a good place to start was to book a holiday, the first holiday I’d had in years.
This threw up another set of questions… What sort of holiday did I want? How did I feel about going on my own? As a wheelchair-user, would I be able to cope outside the familiar environments of home and work? What would the journey be like? How could I be sure that the final destination would be accessible? Would I have fun? Would I end up feeling disappointed and lonely? Could I afford it? How did I go about booking it? In other words, and in so many different ways, was it worth the risk?
I finally decided that if I didn’t try, I’d never know, and that whatever happened, it surely couldn’t be any worse than the soul-destroying mid-life crisis I found myself enduring. A few years previously, I’d read about a charity called The Jubilee Sailing Trust, which runs two square-rigged tall ships, adapted so that disabled and able-bodied people could sail as crew together on sailing adventure holidays. That, I decided, was going to be my Great Adventure — a week’s sailing on a tall ship in the Mediterranean, with 40 other people I’d never met, doing something completely different. All I had to do next was fill in the online form and press Send.
It took some time. I remember sitting at my computer, finger poised over the mouse button, willing myself to click it, and having a vigorous internal argument with myself over how ridiculous I was being. In the end, I gave myself a get-out clause: ‘Look’, I told myself, ‘if you decide you really don’t want to go after all, then fine — all you’ll have lost is some money and of course, the chance to broaden your horizons and experience life at sea’. I clicked the button and the application form flew off into the ether and — although I didn’t know it until much later — changed my life forever.
At the time, though, that was only the start of the long process of making arrangements, psyching myself up to go through with it, booking the time off, and then finally committing to going. I remember waiting for the taxi which would take me to the airport at 4 o’clock in the morning, stomach knotted with anxiety, telling myself that it wasn’t too late to cancel and forget about the whole idea. At the same time, another part of me was firmly resolved — this was going to be the holiday of a lifetime, and even if it didn’t turn out to be quite what I hoped, the experience would still be a million miles away from the dull routine of my everyday life.
And so it turned out: I spent 24 hours utterly miserable with severe seasickness, followed by 6 days of sheer delight, good friendship, personal challenges, great food and revelations about myself that have stood me in good stead ever since. That holiday, and the challenges it presented me, led directly to the life I now have — hugely fulfilling, both personally and professionally, though not without challenges of its own.
So what’s the message here? Well, the message for me is that achieving your dreams (or your goals, if you prefer to think of them that way) is possible, however remote they may seem and however scary the process of getting there appears to be.
Thinking back to the days when I was considering whether or not to book the holiday, I was aware that it touched on many of my insecurities and anxieties; the gap between what I wanted to do (go on a sailing adventure holiday) and what I felt I was personally capable of achieving seemed enormous. How could I go about bridging it? At the time, I’d had some sessions with a life coach, who helped me break down the tasks facing me into small manageable chunks based on the questions I needed answers to. For example: how was I going to get to the airport at 4 a.m., bearing in mind that I needed wheelchair-accessible transport? Should I drive my own car or get a taxi? Where would I find a taxi firm that could guarantee a suitable and available vehicle at that time of the morning? If I took my own car, how far would it be from the car park to the terminal, and how would I carry my bags with me?
Each of these questions required me to do a bit of research to find the answers, and by giving myself a sensible deadline for each one, I was able to achieve my aims without getting stressed out by the whole process. By breaking each task down into easy-to-manage pieces of research, my anxiety levels stayed low, which meant that I was far more likely to commit to the holiday and enjoy it when I got there. In other words, ‘Going on a Sailing Adventure’ stopped looking like a massive edifice of insurmountable challenges which I felt inadequate to step up to, and started looking like an exciting holiday which I simply couldn’t wait to set out on.
In the long term, my personal learning from that experience is that any task or dream or goal can be made much less intimidating by breaking it down into its constituent parts, each of which can be tackled on its own — like building a wall with the smallest of bricks, each brick forming an integral part of the final product.
So here are my best tips for meeting your challenges and realising your dreams:
- Work out exactly what it is you want or have to do. Go on a holiday? Pass an exam? Complete a project at work?
- Establish what your deadline is — because without that you can’t work out how much time you have to complete all of the tasks you need to do.
- Break your tasks down into small chunks that are easily achievable within the time available, and tackle each one in turn. Trying to do too much at once is a sure way of increasing your stress and anxiety levels again.
- Give yourself a get-out clause — permission to withdraw from the whole process if it really does become too difficult. But alongside that, keep clearly in mind the reasons for doing what you’re doing. In my case, I wanted to broaden my horizons, meet new people and try something new.
- If you feel your anxiety levels rising again, ask yourself the following question: what’s the worst thing that can happen if I don’t go through with this? And when you’ve given yourself the answer to that one, ask this question: what’s the worst that can happen if I do go through with this? Once you’ve identified your own personal ‘worst case scenarios’, you are then equipped to admire and look forward to your ‘best case scenario’ and the realisation of your dreams.
Whatever your dreams, goals or challenges are, I hope you too will find ways of realising them.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by