About a year ago I was asked to speak at Rare, a leadership accelerator for diverse talent, about my "personal purpose". I’m a leader in the tech, inclusion and creative industries and I assume they thought my experience would be inspirational (gulp!) in some way ...
My reaction was extreme – I was deeply troubled at the thought of standing in front of a predominantly younger audience and appearing to say, ‘If you don’t have some higher purpose in life you’ve failed.’ There is already too much pressure to be perfect, to do the right thing, to be driven. And although, at the age of 42, I felt I had a clear purpose, it had not always been that way.
After much introspection, I decided to be vulnerable and tell the assembled group of 80 people my story. And despite feeling distinctly terrified, I’m going to share it as my Sunday Story with you today.
In my teens my purpose was to SURVIVE.
I grew up within a family plagued by depression and alcoholism. As is often the way this culminated in neglect and cruelty, which in turn led me to suffer from extreme self-doubt and self-loathing. Combine this with a large dose of bullying at school – girls can be mean – and by age 16 I felt as though life was something that happened outside of me, not with me in it.
Somehow I clung to existence – perhaps because I couldn’t work out the alternative. And I was lucky enough to have a brother and extended family who loved me. I once ran at a relative with a knife. But stopped. I once tried walking out to sea and never turning back. But came home.
I succeeded in achieving my purpose. I survived.
In my twenties my purpose was to HEAL.
I left home and the relationships that were eroding my sanity. I fortunately went to university. Back then, you got a full grant, and for the first time I found friends. I discovered fun with no agenda or threat of revenge. Back at home, every time I looked up, there was always someone to tell me to look back down. Now those people were safely far away.
I got a job in sales, and then digital marketing and people seemed to value me. I started to wake up – to opportunity, to love, to joy. And, yes, occasionally people told me to look down still, but I learnt to focus my eyes not on them but on the distance, where my hopes and freedom lay.
Healing when your pain can only belong to you is so lonely. And sometimes the pain ached so much I thought it would drag me underground. But I had already survived, so I let myself believe in a future. I let myself heal.
In my thirties my purpose was to BE ME.
Up until this point, all my life I had been a watcher. The one on the sidelines. The sensible one getting everyone home. Part of the group, but at the same time removed from it. But that wasn’t me. That was scared (and scarred) me who could not let go of the belief that if I wasn’t careful I would fuck it up. I’d fuck up life, friendship, love, me. I’d lose my fragile grip on sanity and disappear.
But I’d survived. Yes, this piece of nothing from Hastings! I’d started to heal, and now I needed to be me. Instead of being quiet, the ‘mother hen’, the reliable one, I allowed myself to be imperfect. To be a cow. To dance till my feet bled. To laugh and laugh, and if there was a consequence – well it could fuck off. Because now my purpose was to be me.
In my forties my purpose is to FIGHT.
After 30 years of surviving, healing and letting me have a voice – it’s only now that I am strong enough to have a higher purpose – a purpose that aims to fight for fairness. To fight for that person who does not have a voice. To fight for equality and representation. To fight for 18-year-old me, who thought a piece of gum on the bottom of someone’s shoe was worth more than her.
I might have lunch with someone who is struggling. Help make a business idea fly. Educate on what sexual harassment is. It can be small or it can be big. The main thing is I use my newfound strength to help anyone be whoever they want to be.
And some days that purpose has to take a back seat. The old self-doubt creeps back and tells me I am just a shitty girl from Hastings. Some days I lie on a cold stone floor just so I can feel alive. I’m just surviving. And I know the healing is not done. I’m exploring getting professional help – something I would have glowered at 10 years ago – to finally deal with the really dark demons.
But I can get back up. I can keep up the steady steps forward. I can try and do a small something for the world. I can say out loud, my purpose is to fight.
Right now, my purpose is to say I only survived because I was kind to myself.
But right now, here at Surviving Sundays, my purpose is to say: I survived by being kind to and patient with myself. By, in between the tears and snot, giving myself time to heal and believe. So, my one Sunday wish is that the next time you berate yourself or feel you’re not good enough, remember you’re going to be alive for 100 years, so there is plenty of time to be amazing. If right now your focus is to survive, heal or just believe, that’s more than OK.
I’ve written a novel in my head – the story of my life – 1,000 times. It’s called 'The Flowering Cactus' and is a useful metaphor. I started life in earth so dry I struggled to survive. Then some kindness brought water and, after storing some up for hard times, I started to grow. Of course, there were droughts, but I started to believe and so a flower bud formed. And now it’s flowered. For how long and to what result – who knows? But that flower is something I worked so hard for I am going to enter it into every goddamn flower show I know.