“I was spread so thinly that nothing I did ever felt good enough.”

Helen Barnes on how she gave up traditional notions of success, concentrated on her family and discovered the joy of reinventing herself.

Time is a strange, intangible thing. Over a lifetime, it goes from being abundant and valueless to becoming the most priceless thing on earth.  What starts out as nothing, soon becomes everything.

When I began working in PR more than 15 years ago, my time was not mine to own. I was paid for a 5-day working week, but it never ended there. Client events often fell on evenings and weekends, and the expectation was simply that we would give that time up willingly for the greater good.

It seemed acceptable at the time. Time was a lesser commodity. Easily traded for a glass of cheap wine and a few nibbles. I considered myself lucky to have an exciting job filled with celebrities and events. It was fun. For a while.

But as I got older, rose up the ranks at work and had a family, time slowly began to slip from my grasp and as it did, I began to recognise just how precious it was. I found I had to fight, body and soul, for every second, from the moment I woke, to the moment I went to sleep.

My boss, my clients, my team, my family – each of them needed a larger chunk of me than there were hours in the day. Work was all-consuming; occupying my mind day and night. My schedules became so tight that it felt like I was constantly running for a connecting flight. One delay and it would throw the whole airport into uproar.

Consider what is success

It’s funny how society conditions you to think about success. I’d achieved a university degree, and worked hard all my life to earn a decent enough salary and a senior role. I had a home, a car, a husband and two lovely kids. And yet, I was spread so thinly that nothing I did ever felt good enough. I felt like I was stumbling through life, and missing it. Too exhausted to enjoy being with my family or friends. Too numb to enjoy anything.

Something needed to change. But I was in a haze and living day-to-day; task to task. Anything beyond that was a fog. I didn’t have the time to figure out what to do next. I didn’t have the energy to pull myself up and out of this pit.

The first few sessions were like re-learning to talk.

What I did know, was that I needed help. And I found it, in the form of a coach. Once a week, I would spend an hour with her, and that one hour was an investment in me. It was the first step to reclaiming my own life.

The first few sessions were like re-learning to talk. I had grown so used to internalising that at first, it was rather stilted. Sometimes it came out as an hour-long sob. But eventually I settled into it; I was able to speak more freely and we started to explore. My day-to-day interactions.  Behavioural patterns. We questioned the truths behind my thoughts and feelings. Applied different lenses. Never in judgement, only in curiosity.

I owe so much to those conversations. Individually, the sessions didn’t seem to be particularly moving the needle, but looking back now I can see that they were facilitating a seismic shift beneath the surface that was to pave the way for an entire reinvention of myself.

Reevaluating my beliefs

Over several weeks and months, I reevaluated my whole belief system. My role as a wife and mother; the expectations I held of myself and those that I assumed others were making of me. My identity as an educated woman and what feminism meant to me. What success looked like now, versus what I thought it looked like in my 20s. We were supposed to be the generation that ‘had it all’.  I grew up determined that I would have a thriving career as well as a family. But I was starting to realise that ‘having it all’ rather meant ‘doing it all’ – or dying trying. I was feeling strangled by definitions of success that I was starting to realise were not my own.  And in the meantime, time was slipping away.

The first decision I made was to leave my job. It did not come easily. I wrestled with the financial implications; could we cope as a family if I didn’t work for a while? I always intended to continue working, but at this point I had no idea what I would do. What if I never worked again? What would that do for my independence? How would I be judged for it? Was I throwing 15 years of hard work down the pan? What sort of role-model did that make me to my children? Was it a selfish act, to allow my husband to carry the financial burden of the family alone? Would he still respect me? Was I a ‘bad feminist’ if I choose my family over my career?

It took some serious soul searching. But eventually it became clear to me. In order to reset my life, I needed to strip it back. To simplify. Flush out the baggage, the expectations, the judgement, the limiting beliefs, the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘oughts’ – all of it. And boil it down to one thing. What was most important to me. I decided that was my family. Being there for my children, and seeing them grow. Being emotionally present for them, and for my husband. I chose to put my family first.  Not for them; not for some outdated expectation of how a wife and mother should behave, but for me.

How to put your family first

I say I put them first. Not only. Not exclusively.

Left with that as the foundation, I was then in a position to rebuild. I reconnected with my friends, with my interests and with my identity. I reminded myself who I was: a person with integrity. A compassionate leader. A diplomat. A creative problem-solver. A writer and communicator. I started to think about what I could offer the world in this new phase of my life, and began to plot out how I might do it on my own terms.

In order to meet my primary objective, I needed flexibility and autonomy.  Remote working?  Start my own business? Doing what? In this curious time of uncertainty and existential crisis, what did the world need, that I could provide?

I thought of all the people I knew who were suffering in their lives: trying in vain to juggle work and family and not satisfied with the value exchange; execs who had been pushed to their limits during COVID and who were exhausted and burnt out; people dealing with blame culture, toxicity and judgement in the workplace; those who walked out during the Great Resignation who were now looking to create a new future…

…and felt a fire begin to burn in my belly.

Learning to live in the moment

In the blissful quiet of lockdown, as I learnt to live in the moment, I discovered my core belief: that life is too short to be unhappy. And before I knew it, a path had started to open up ahead of me. Peering through the knotted weeds, I could see my way through to a career in coaching.  I knew that with the experiences I had been through both in my career and through my own personal transformation, I could help others to see their way through the gloom and begin to paint a picture of their next chapter, whatever that may look like. I signed up for the training, and entered a whole new world. Of optimism, growth and possibility.

Now, I help people to change their lives. To clear the fog, recover their energy, re-evaluate their priorities and reinvent their future so that it is rooted in their own passion and purpose. For some, it might be about taking life in a brand new direction; for others it’s more about re-evaluating and adjusting their current circumstances so that they can feel more aligned with what really matters to them. The solution for both is to go back to basics. You need to create space to strip off the layers and bare your soul. Only then, will you find out what fulfilment truly looks like to you.

The journey is not easy. Walk it alone, and you are more likely to stumble and trip. Your fears will get the better of you and you may well turn and go home. Walk it with me, and I will hold you through the hard bits, challenge you when you’re getting in your own way, and cheer for you as you gain the strength to fight for what you want.

Life is short.

There really is no time to waste.



Helen Barnes

Want to experience coaching, and find out what might be possible for you? Free session for Noon readers: book here: https://go.oncehub.com/HelenBarnes

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