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
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.