My life was potbound
…And crying out for new spaces to grow.
When did you realise your life needed to change? Some women’s lives are changed by climbing mountains and consulting gurus. My own was changed by sitting on my sofa watching a gardening programme.
How a gardening show changed my life
The presenter moved through the joyous profusion of colours, shapes and textures in his herbaceous borders to focus on a sad, little specimen lurking disconsolately in a pot by his shed. For the benefit of the camera, he picked it up, the better to display its full wretchedness to the viewers at home. The poor plant seemed embarrassed by this sudden intrusion and a few of its remaining leaves fluttered lethargically towards the ground.
It’s difficult to establish there’s something seriously amiss when we’re considering a career, a relationship or some other profoundly personal situation.
The presenter was undeterred. Yanking the plant from the pot by its spindly stem, he pointed to a knotted tangle of roots circling endlessly round and round and interwoven into an impenetrable, tightly knitted ball. ‘This is what happens’, he observed, ‘when a healthy plant is neglected and can’t find enough sustenance when it’s trying to grow. It’s now so weak that it can’t send out roots to nurture itself from the surrounding environment. This plant is potbound!’ He paused and stared mournfully into the camera for full dramatic effect. ‘Unless it’s repotted soon, this plant is going to choke itself to death.’
My a-ha moment
I had to restrain myself from cheering out loud: not at the potential fate of this poor plant, but at my own sudden insight of incandescent lucidity. In one short sentence, the presenter had diagnosed the malaise from which I had been suffering. Mr Gardening Guy had nailed it. This was what was wrong with me! For quite some time, I’d been assailed by this nagging feeling that my own increasingly pointless efforts to flourish were going around in circles.
The commitments, pleasures and pastimes that once I had enjoyed no longer seemed to engage or sustain me. Call it existential angst or ennui, or call it simply tired-all-the-time fatigue, but the more I struggled to ignore whatever it was, the worse the symptoms became. It was like fighting against the constraints of a straitjacket.
How did I get here?
In the past, I have forced myself to achieve goals in all sorts of arenas, including what some think of as an own goal for the English Cricket Team when I wrote Another Bloody Tour, my first-hand account of following my husband and his team mates on the 1986 tour of the West Indies, on what became known as the ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll tour’.
I’d planted myself in an environment that had worked well enough, but now I was feeling stifled by it.
Over a period of almost three score years and ten, I have moved from modern linguist and international conference interpreter, to writer and broadcaster, keynote speaker, to parent and homemaker, to building contractor and business development networker, to longevity and wellbeing research fellow and cross-generational mentor but I knew in an instant, I was potbound.
I’d planted myself in an environment that had worked well enough, but now I was feeling stifled by it. Not only was it stunting my growth, it was jeopardising my well-being. It was clear that the time had come to extract myself from my current situation and to set out in search of a new, more propitious environment. It was equally clear that no convenient Mr Gardening Guy was ever going to organise my own repotting for me. However tough it might prove, and however much support I might garner along the way, this was a process of self-renewal that I’d have to work out for myself.
For many people, the descent into becoming potbound is a gradual process, a continuous drip-drip of apparently minor issues.
As Carl Jung famously observed way back at the start of the twentieth century, there are no ‘colleges for 40-year-olds that prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life’. Until communities across the world create solutions, we must rely on our own devices to come up with the answer.
You can be stifled at any age
I soon realised that being potbound was no respecter of age. The very tendrils that you have yourself grown into the soil around you can stifle you at any stage of your life: young, old, middle-aged, retired, at the peak of personal achievement or at the apogee of a professional career.
For many people, the descent into becoming potbound is a perniciously gradual process, a continuous drip-drip accumulation of apparently minor issues. Although the realisation of the full extent of potbound damage may come as a sudden shock, rather like the dramatic demise of a majestic oak.
We get caught up in the day-to-day
Of course, it’s easy to identify that things aren’t working when you’re dealing with inanimate objects. Even dug in deep beneath the most substantial sand dune, most of us would still recognise when the boiler has exploded, the laptop has crashed or that we’ve just dropped our smart phone in a puddle, smashed the screen, and reversed over it with the car for good measure.
It’s far more difficult to establish that there’s something seriously amiss when we’re considering a lifelong career, an intimate relationship or some other profoundly personal situation. When we find ourselves confronted with a complex set of circumstances, it’s often hard to separate what’s important and what’s not.
How can you tell if you need to repot your life?
If you struggle to get out of bed to go to work one grim winter’s morning, does that immediately mean that you should call it a day and quit your job? If your partner squeezes toothpaste from the middle of the tube, cracks his knuckles while watching TV, or consistently taps the top of his boiled egg in that irritating fashion, does that necessarily warrant a call to the divorce lawyer? Maybe. Maybe not.
Perhaps none of these seemingly nebulous niggles would be sufficient in themselves to trigger a dramatic change of direction, but they might gradually lead you to a tipping point, or alert you to a more fundamental issue that you haven’t yet admitted or identified.
It’s not the knuckle-cracking or the murderous urges in themselves, but it’s the way they add up to a dangerous accumulation of repressed feelings. Why are we so adept at covering up and ignoring our instincts? Perhaps part of the problem is that we’re conditioned to resist the idea that things aren’t working. From an early age we’re drip-fed the notion that, if we try hard enough, we’ll eventually overcome the problems that life throws at us.
You can’t just power through
We live in a society that rightly prizes resilience, grit and perseverance. Just like previous world-war generations, we’re exhorted to pack all our troubles in our old kit bags and smile, smile, smile. Staying power, the stuff of true champions, is justifiably lauded. In such a competitive environment, no one feels comfortable looking like a quitter who hasn’t given 100 per cent commitment to the job in hand.
So how do we start framing the questions to deliver answers best geared to ensure our wellness, well-being and sense of purpose?
None of us wants to fall at the next hurdle, but how do you know when you’re flogging a dead horse? Herein lies the rub. If you don’t learn how to ask yourself the right kind of questions, you’ll never have a hope in hell of coming up with the right kind of answers, and you risk finding yourself climbing to the top of a very impressive ladder only to discover that it’s up against the wrong wall.
Or that you’ve ploughed a wonderfully straight furrow, but it’s in the wrong field. Feel free to dream up a suitably compelling metaphor to cover your own particular situation, but you get the idea: fail to question your own feelings, motivations and behaviours and you’re soon on the path to being potbound.
So…how do you start asking the right questions?
So how do we start framing the kind of questions that might deliver answers best geared to ensure our overall wellness, well-being and sense of purpose? I believe the right questions involve the heart, as opposed to the head, far more frequently than we imagine.
Too often our conscious selves elect to ignore our unconscious wisdom, often at the expense of physical and mental health. Sometimes we may even be aware of this clash between our intellectual and emotional selves but we make the mistake of brushing aside our gut feelings and pushing on regardless. Far more frequently we simply fail to recognise what our heart is trying to tell us.
The writing might be on the wall, but we haven’t acquired the emotional literacy to read what the message says. In the absence of some handy key to decipher the Rosetta Stone of our innermost feelings, we could be mired in our potbound predicament forever until we learn to crack our own code.
Go to How to Repot Your Life: Part 2 to discover the steps to start being happy now.