Ask Philippa

A reader thinks it’s too late for her dream ca­reer. It’s time to feel the fear and get go­ing, says psy­chother­a­pist and Red ’s agony aunt, Philippa Perry

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Our agony aunt tack­les your is­sues

I am writ­ing from a place of quiet des­per­a­tion; it’s a fa­mil­iar state for me. I am 40, sin­gle and have been for five years. In fact, I’ve never had a re­la­tion­ship that lasted more than a few months. I am fi­nan­cially in­se­cure; I do tem­po­rary work. My real de­sire is to design clothes, but I don’t feel con­fi­dent in my abil­ity and think I’ve left it too late. I feel the root cause is low self-es­teem. I over­think things, then don’t act.

My mum died 10 years ago and I still re­sent her and my dad for not sup­port­ing me in my ambition when I was younger. I know they loved me and I should let this go but I can’t.

I have had a few short rounds of cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy and psy­chother­apy on the NHS. I re­mem­ber say­ing to one ther­a­pist that I had a de­fec­tive per­son­al­ity and, if I’m honest, I still feel this. Peo­ple think I’m okay, but in re­al­ity, I feel low, numb and as if I’m pad­dling through life.

Name and ad­dress with­held You are lucky in one re­spect. Many peo­ple can’t even get a han­dle on what it is they want to do. You have a dream and an ambition.

It sounds as though your par­ents, al­though lov­ing, were too fear­ful to en­cour­age you to pur­sue a ca­reer where fail­ure is pos­si­ble, and you may have in­her­ited this fear of fail­ure. We get one go at life and, luck­ily, you are only half­way through yours so you can turn it around.

Un­less you have a go at pur­su­ing your dream, you will al­ways have that re­gret. Yes, de­sign­ing clothes is a very com­pet­i­tive area, but you’d have to com­pete to get a job in a su­per­mar­ket so you might as well com­pete at some­thing you re­ally want to do. Yes, you will have to take risks and get loans and study. You will have to in­vest in your­self and it still might not work out. No de­signer ever had a guar­an­tee that they would make it when they set out. But I be­lieve it’s bet­ter to try and fail than not try at all. Fail­ing might not be as bad as you think… and you might suc­ceed. Many of us, my­self in­cluded, started at the bot­tom of a new ca­reer half­way through our lives. My be­lief is, it’s okay to fail but it is not okay not to try.

I don’t buy your con­cept of a de­fec­tive per­son­al­ity. There are cer­tainly de­fec­tive en­vi­ron­ments in which it is dif­fi­cult to de­velop and grow. How­ever, it sounds to me as though you have felt stuck for a long time, with very old in­vis­i­ble ropes hold­ing you back.

The ropes, you know, are merely habits. It feels strange to change them, but you can do just that.

You say, “I should let this go but I can’t”. I want to play with your lan­guage a bit here. In­stead of “I can’t do it” say, “I choose not to do it”. It’s a small ad­just­ment but it will help you realise that change re­ally is within your power.

When you feel numb, try this ex­er­cise: pay at­ten­tion to your five senses. Con­cen­trate, with­out judg­ing, on what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Spend a minute at a time on each one and, while you’re do­ing that, no­tice how you are breath­ing. This is what it feels like to be alive.

I want you to give your­self per­mis­sion to be your­self. This means not try­ing to get it right for other peo­ple, such as po­ten­tial part­ners, but get­ting it right for you. It means not con­tin­u­ing to give in to what were your par­ents’ fears; it means notic­ing how you feel and, from that, work­ing out what you want, and go­ing for it. Be­ing your­self means there is a per­son there for an­other per­son to have a re­la­tion­ship with; it will give you a much bet­ter chance of a long-term part­ner­ship.

You are also lucky in that you know what is hold­ing you back – over­think­ing and not act­ing. Read self-help guru Su­san Jef­fers’ clas­sic book, Feel The Fear And Do It Any­way. Then act on it.

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