Julia Armstrong, relationship coach and author, talks to us...
As an international marathon runner, author, therapist and divorcee, Julia has learned many lessons we can all benefit from....
"I wonder whether the happily ever after stories we are fed as children, and later as adults through literature and songs and films - the prince meets princess or princess kisses frog who turns into prince and they marry and live happily ever story - somehow answer a yearning for certainty within. A desire to know, to be safe, and we misguidedly seek that safety within the arms of another who is doing the same thing. Or in the definition of a career, or in my case in sport – if I run fast I will be loved. If someone marries me then I am definitely okay and loveable. If I succeed then I will be recognised and loved. I sought okayness within the chimeras of all three of these things!
Of course, in the ideal world we know we are loved for being ourselves, that we have permission to be alive – to be all that we are and to make connections from that position. From that position of self love and self worth, all will be well. Starting over is in truth all about that. Looking about you when all has crashed to the floor and getting up again anyway, sometimes again and again until we’re forced to look at the patterns and see the common denominator in all the pain and anguish – ourselves. And so we start to learn to love ourselves, trust ourselves, nurture the most important relationship: the one we have with ourselves. From this all flows - the success, the recognition, the love, the close relationships all come to us - but of course it is not as important to get that from outside now because we have found it inside ourselves.
Everything comes from within and then the outside changes - the source of any outer conflict is inner pain. Easy to type, but tougher to acknowledge and live and address the pain within ourselves, or the frustrations and the needs that we have projected onto ‘life working out’, whether through marriage or any other projected reality rather than truthful vision from our soul. Everything is created through dialogue and in relationship. We cannot not be in relationship and we cannot not be having dialogue, but real change and the capacity to start over as we intend and to create the vision that we desire comes from being intentional in our dialogue, validating difference in others and taking responsibility for ourselves and for our part in all that we have created.
My own lessons have been hard learned! As an eight year old child I dreamed with my best friend Wendy of who we would marry, the babies we would have, the dogs and cats and chickens and goats too (I seem to remember!) in the yard. I also dreamed of running for England, running in the Olympic games. I dreamed too of being a publisher – a writer – involved with books all day long. I dreamt a lot!
I am 50 (2009) and in a way all my visions are in place - apart from the babies, although I have many Godchildren and nephews and nieces, so in some ways the babies are there too! But paradoxically the thing I am best at is helping others to find their true expression – to have a great relationship with themselves and so in turn with other people. My biggest skill is in helping others love themselves and start over and begin again and learn to create a preferred future that really does support the life they want to lead, to learn how to really listen to their true inner voice.
To get to this place, however, there has been much starting over in my own life. I am often asked how on earth have I ended up helping people in their businesses, in their sports, their relationships, their lives, when my own history has been in some ways hazardous – and full of heartbreak and having to start over again! I reply that, in general, it seems the best teachers are those who struggle with the subject – and I have struggled with life!
My mother was ill when I was 12 years old, she had a full amputation of her right leg when I was 14 and she died when I was 16. Watching my mother deal with her illness and loss of her leg taught me much of what I teach about dealing with adversity and embracing life whatever the circumstances, about fully living even when life was not as you expected, even in the face of imminent death. Through her death my mother taught me to live. She was always optimistic and funny and apart from some moments of extreme illness and despair her essential ‘mumminess’ remained and her living in the moment and her advice - ‘darling, have fun’ - has always rung in my ears.
She died and we had to start over. My father struggled – he carried on as was expected by society but his depression and grief was tangible and deep and life at home was sad – but my sister Rosy and I had exams and boyfriends and I had my running. And on we went.
The day after she died my father encouraged me to go up to the running club and train as I always did on a Saturday, and so I did – I ran and on I went. This skill, this ability to carry on, to start over, I learnt very young. I learnt to keep living when you have lost the most important person in your life and I learnt that life can be good, more than good when everything has changed and isn’t what you thought it would be. I learnt that whatever happens in life, life carries on and you better go with it. But, needless to say really, the lack of time to grieve also meant that unbeknownst to me I had set up a fear of abandonment and an expectation of endings being inevitable that played itself out again and again in my relationships with men. I longed for security and I believed deep down that running fast would answer everything. I married my best friend and running partner who I met when running for England in my first international abroad in Spain. I had friendship and security and we loved each other and created a good life together, we ran a fitness business and both ran for England and my world felt safe and complete.
I ran in the 1986 Commonwealth Games but I had an injury going into the race and had to drop out at 20 miles. My world fell to pieces and starting over then was one of the biggest asks of my life. The process involved in starting to address the unhealed pain from my past. Really facing myself, it was a process which resulted eventually in the breakup of my marriage. I had pushed so hard for so long and, rather than starting over, I realised that I had been pushing on without regard for my unresolved grief and loss. Without Nigel by my side to protect me I started to really start over. I had years to unravel, chronic fatigue and a chronic back injury to heal.
The paradox is that all my life I have worked with people. All of my life I have had the gift to help others heal, but the real challenge has come in healing myself and, in truth, we lead best by example. If I couldn’t heal my own pain, then however could I teach others to heal themselves? From a really authentic place – to start over, to be themselves?
I married three more times after breaking up with Nigel. It could be argued that they were boyfriends I over-committed to! I still held onto the vestiges of a romantic happily ever after story myself. When asked about what happened, I reply that I was the common denominator and on reflection I was unaware of the huge investment I had in ‘not getting my needs met’ which meant I tended to go for rescuing men, only for them to find out that the child in me needed rescuing too – all very complicated, as we humans tend to be! But not the stuff for a smooth ride, the happily ever after in the sunset ride.
The breakups were painful. The only thing I would say is that I recognised those imposters heartbreak and pain for what they are – I recognised the lost child that sobbed for her dead mother and longed for the affection and approval of her emotionally absent and grieving father in the arms of men who of course would not heal my own pain. Only I could do that. The pain that came up in the marriages and in the breakups taught me about myself and ultimately I really and truly learnt that I hadn’t been able to receive love. I learnt at a really deep level that I must learn to love me, that I must learn to love and nurture all those difficult and damaged parts I deemed unacceptable but had hoped a man would hold and ‘make better’. I learnt that I must love myself if I ever hoped for a sustainable loving relationship." Julia Armstrong, relationship coach and author of ‘Running to Learn’. Julia will be exhibiting at the Starting Over Shows on 7 & 28 March 2010 . You can contact her via her website for relationship advice and coaching at www.juliaarmstrong.com.