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Stop making your English mean everything

If there's one thing that I think encapsulates the therapy or coaching process for me (at the moment - these things change!), it's "pattern-spotting".


Noticing when behaviours and habits in one area of your life are mirrored in others. Noticing what brings together seemingly random thoughts and actions, and beginning to see what might be lying beneath.


My therapy session on Monday threw up a new pattern I hadn't been fully aware of or able to articulate before. I'm going to label it (for now - these things change!), "Everything Means Everything."


It's come out of a series of disparate ramblings with my therapist where I noticed that a common thread among lots of my experiences seemed to be an 'all-or-nothing' or even a 'once-and-for-all' approach.


I applied this to friendships and relationships, taking one awkward coffee date to mean "Right, well, I guess that friendship is over." I applied this to my business where I needed to find the "one solution I can use forever" when it came to content creation, website design or even my sessions with clients. And I even applied it to - and this was where it all came into crystal focus - clothes shopping.


I, for as long as I can remember, have believed that I "don't like clothes." I'm not interested in them, I tell myself, I'm happy with my two pairs of jeans and 5 T-shirts that I cycle on repeat until something falls apart from over-wear and I suffer the indignity of having to - ugh - shop for a replacement.


There are many layered factors about why I've built this view of clothes in my mind. I've never been very well paid, so I've rarely had the kind of cash required to make a serious change to my wardrobe. I've always been varying degrees of "overweight", meaning that clothes seldom look on my body anything like they do in the pictures. This second factor also makes the first factor harder since I find it more difficult to find second-hand or vintage clothes that fit well since sizes fluctuate so much from brand to brand, AND I tend not to enjoy wearing cheaper clothes because the fabrics aren't as structured or flattering. On top of this, I'm a lesbian and struggle to find clothes that - I believe - match my inward perception of myself: that's too feminine, that's too "butch", that's too whatever...


And, on Monday - or more accurately, in the two weeks between Monday's therapy session and the session before, as I mulled over this question of why I struggle to dress myself as a 32-year-old woman - I found something new: Everything Means Everything™️


You see, I noticed that while shopping, browsing ASOS, or scrolling on Instagram and getting ads for clothes, I regularly came across things that I liked the look of. As I'm walking down the street, I often see people wearing outfits that I love. So, it's clearly not true that I'm "not interested in clothes." They draw my eye. But, when I come to apply these clothes to my own life, something happens.


My test for whether I should buy an item is: does this item of clothing fully represent who I believe myself to be as an individual human?


I mean...


Obviously, this was not happening consciously, but it came out in thoughts like:

  • Mmm, I think it's a bit feminine. I don't think I'll look gay enough in that.

  • I like how it looks on THIS plus-sized model in the picture, but I have days where I can't stand wearing tight clothes so I can't buy it.

  • That's a really fun shirt, but I think I'll probably find it garish after a while.

Each of these thoughts identified a time when I wouldn't like to wear the clothes - and gave that as a reason not to buy them. I ignored entirely the times when I wanted to feel feminine, or when I wanted to wear tighter clothes, or when I wanted to wear bright colours and patterns.


I was subconsciously trying to make this poor item of clothing work for EVERY mood I'm ever in, EVERY identity I possess, and EVERY level of body confidence I feel.


And every single item failed the test. Obviously.


And of course, by failing to acknowledge that I might ever feel body confident or feminine or into-bright-colours, I have successfully built a wardrobe that means I NEVER have clothes for those days.


The next step for me and my therapist was to re-frame this way of looking at clothes, to give myself permission for clothes to be less than I had built them up to be:

  • Maybe it's OK for you to only want to wear this top sometimes.

  • Maybe it's OK to have clothes for high-confidence days and clothes for low-confidence days.

  • Maybe it's OK for me to lean into my feminine side sometimes (and it doesn't mean I'm letting down lesbians everywhere...maybe that's not a pressure that I should have ever put upon my own shoulders!!??)

I'm still far from thinking these things automatically - but I have a new question to interrogate myself with if I sense that some of my thinking is off:


Are you trying to make this mean everything?


Can you let this be 'right' or 'correct' in a limited context rather than a generalised one? What would that look like?




What's any of this got to do with English, I hear you cry...


(Or maybe you're enjoying my personal discovery story? I'm gonna try and make a tenuous link now, buckle up.)


I think that a lot of us struggle with "letting things be good in a limited context" and this is so often behind the "not good enough" thoughts that almost always get brought into my coaching sessions by clients.


It's also on show, I think, when my clients struggle to see value in the things they CAN do when there remain things they struggle with.


"Yes, yes, Rhiannon I have no trouble holding social conversations in English BUT how does that help me with my work?"


Or, in other words, what's the point of my English being good in one context if it's not good in ALL?


Well... maybe reframing helps because you walked into this coaching call upset with how bad your English is, and we've just established that there are many contexts in which it's not bad at all. This reframe helps because you've been tricking yourself into thinking your English was bad, simply because you struggled in one specific area.


(You've tricked yourself into thinking you don't like skirts because there are some days when you don't want to wear them.)


Maybe we can take the pressure off your English skills to be all things in all situations.


Maybe we can celebrate that your skills serve you really well in relaxed, social conversations, without dismissing that as "it doesn't count" because there are other areas you still find hard.


Maybe we can shift your mind's narrative to: "I'm really happy with my English and I can do a lot with it. My next goal is to feel more comfortable in a work environment."


That helps.


That's not a meaningless shift, assuming we can get you to believe it.


But if you're holding on to an Everything Means Everything™️ mindset, that rephrase isn't going to do very much.


I reckon there's something to be gained in learning to spot when you're making something mean too much or represent too much. This, as we have established, is something I do a lot - maybe you don't do it as much as me, maybe you do it a lot more. But I suspect we all do it to some degree.


Being able to assess what - exactly - is frustrating you about English, rather than balefully imploring the universe to just make you fucking fluent already, is, I think, ultimately a helpful step to take.


I'd love to know your thoughts - please leave a comment if this post gave you something to think about! Below are also some reflective questions you might want to mull over or journal on.


Reflections:

  1. Are you guilty of generalised thinking like "My English is bad"? What might a more accurate assessment look like for you?

  2. Pattern spotting: can you see any ways you think about your language skills echoed in other parts of your life? Do you have any idea what might be lying behind this pattern?


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