Over the Christmas break, I went skiing for the very first time in my life – with my husband and two daughters. After the past year, I wanted to challenge myself and take a leap out of my comfort zone.
However, the main question that was playing on my mind as we arrived for our first lesson, was “can you teach a middle aged woman to ski?”. The short answer is YES! But it will require determination, motivation, perseverance - and a great sense of humour!
I took lessons for ski and left with lessons for life.
Here are eight things I learnt during the trip:
1. Find the right mentor for you
I had several instructors across the week, but I found that I put the most trust in the instructor who really understood me. I discovered that when I had trust, I took more 'risks', pushed myself out of my comfort zone and beyond my mental limits. In other words, the safety and trust in the instructor and the relationship enabled me to grow beyond my fears. Another instructor, who was a lovely and skilled skier, was too keen for me to progress to the next slope level so I felt under pressure and this knocked my confidence even further. I became more anxious and as a result, I didn’t progress as much as I could have.
In many ways this is similar to a relationship. Whether this is with your partner, best friend or therapist. When there is mutual respect, trust, understanding and safety, we can grow beyond our own defensive reactions. In such a trusted and safe relationship, we can really acknowledge and own our own part and develop and grow as a human being.
Takeaway: Trust and safety are the foundation for growth.
2. Go against your instincts
Apparently, in order to stand still or stop on a slope, one must position oneself so they are leaning towards the drop, rather than instinctively leaning into the mountain. This was such a weird experience! ALL of my senses tell me to lean toward the mountain, but the instructor showed me how this exact instinct will lead me to fall. Slowly, slowly I practiced and created new neuron highways in my brain so that my instinct will be to lean into the drop, to keep me safe.
In a very similar way, I teach couples that at times, their automatic reaction when they feel hurt creates more suffering and disconnection for themselves and the other person. When we are triggered, it might be wise to react in the opposite way to our instincts. If you feel you want to withhold, distance yourself or avoid an issue, you might want to try to reach out or check in, leaning towards intimacy, connection and closeness. If, on the other hand, when you are hurt you feel the need to ‘go after’ your partner, blame or shame them, then try talking about it here and now; raise your voice or demand attention. You might want to try to contain this reactivity, find ways to soothe yourself first and then connect with your partner from a place of vulnerability and curiosity rather than from a place of shame and criticism. These new behaviours might be the key to your healing and growth.
Takeaway: Sometimes going against your automatic reactive instincts is needed in order to achieve what you want. Think about your instinctive response vs what is needed to repair and reconnect.
3. Growth happens when seeking discomfort
It was a challenging, learning experience. But oh my god, how much I learned about myself! I like the idea of taking myself out of my comfort zone - and it couldn't get more uncomfortable than learning to ski at midlife! The energy, vibe and self-expansion of the soul that you feel is magnificent. It is far too easy and convenient to stay in the comfort zone. To do the same things and be the same way. But if you will take a moment to reflect on your past you will notice that the points of transformation and growth usually happened as a result of some level of discomfort.
Discomfort challenges our mind set, belief systems, mental limits and emotional intelligence, in a way that invites development and growth. With each experience, we get closer to achieving our full potential and living a life worth living. And when you face your fears, there is nothing like the feeling you get when you overcome something you thought was impossible. You expend the ‘self’ by doing so, and therefore add another dimension to your being. Takeaway: When you #seekdiscomfort you seek growth.
4. Find your higher purpose
Within the first 10 minutes of the lesson I freaked out, wanted to stop, and was desperate to return to the spa! My inner voice told me "This is too much. You do not need this". But, I was with my family, and I had my own past words to my daughters about ‘not giving up when something is challenging’ repeating in my head. Being a role model for my daughters when facing a challenge was bigger and more powerful than my fear. This might be the only incentive that kept me skiing and coming back each day. And it was worth it!
When I work with couples, I help them to identify their higher purpose. It might be the higher value they place on their family unit, their children, the commitment to grow beyond their own parents' patterns, or something else. Once they identified their higher purpose, the journey to get there is much clearer. It also serves as an anchor when they might feel challenged or triggered, because it brings them back to focus on their inner, higher purpose. For example, a parent who recognised his daughter’s mental health as his higher priority might choose to stop confronting her about her academic challenges, in favour of offering emotional support to her while she figures out strategies to fulfil her academic potential or chooses a different path that better suits her personality. Takeaway: Identify your higher purpose to overcome your immediate struggle or fear.
5. Take one day at a time
From the first day, I really didn't want to return! Nevertheless, for a whole week I thought to myself “I just cannot do it!”. But connecting with my higher purpose (see number four), I decided to focus on surviving one lesson at a time. I told myself "finish just this one lesson and then decide".
For many people the last two years have been very challenging. Some were also faced with losses, sickness and anxieties. It can feel very overwhelming to think about the future, even next week, when one is in the middle of a crisis. Taking each hour as it is, each day at a time, focusing only on this next hour or this day only can really ease anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed. And at the end of each day, be proud that you did well! Taking one day at a time, with the right support, you will feel more present, calm and grounded. Takeaway: In challenging times, it can be helpful to take each moment/day one at a time.
6. A sense of humour can ease tension
During this week of ski lessons, I rediscovered my sense of humour! For example, it made me laugh that I was happy when the rest of my class progressed to more advanced slopes on day two, as it meant that I had the whole 'nursery slope' to myself! As you will understand, one needs to have a sense of humour when there is not much progress!
And every time I looked terrified I shouted to my family "do you think people believe that I am a beginner?!" with an amused look on my face.
Humour is not only amusing for the ear, it actually releases tension from our nervous system (as long as it is self-humour, and not at the expense of someone else). Laughter also produces calm and relaxing hormones in our brain that are transmitted to the whole body. It also increases the immune system so it really is a win-win situation.
Takeaway: Maintaining a good sense of humour can do wonders for easing stress.
7. Control your inner voice with empowering mantras
When faced with a difficult situation, our inner voice’s true nature can reveal itself. Some uninvited thoughts may come to mind to add fear, criticism, doubt in our abilities, or to generally put us down. This does not have to be seen as a negative voice. There is a reason and a purpose for the voice in our head - which is mainly a survival thing to keep us alive and safe from danger. The problem is that this voice is activated far more often than is needed and reactive so any sense of discomfort is a fatal danger. Yet, we can view that voice as a sign and an opportunity to overcome a challenge or fear, and learning to control and channel the voice to a place that empowers us.
Taking control of my fear of skiing and consciously choosing empowering mantras, like "I can do this!", “I know how to do hard things!” or “I’ve got this” was hugely uplifting for my spirit, strengthening my mental capacity, soothing and motivating for me in order to overcome that fear.
Takeaway: Choose an inner voice that supports the mindset you need in order to overcome your fears, and empowers you to thrive.
8. Be attune to your needs and communicate them
I knew what I needed to learn. I needed to be confident at skiing first, then be presented with more of a challenge. I communicated clearly that as I will never be an Olympic skier in this life, I had no desire to rush to the next level. I needed to maintain the right pace in order to become confident at each stage, even if it meant staying in the 'nursery school' area for the whole week. This brings me back to lesson number one, as the instructor who heard and understood that was the one I could stretch myself the most with. So it is a two way process - on the one hand to clearly and safely communicate your needs, and on the other to be open to listen, understand and validate the other’s experience.
One of the biggest mistakes I hear again and again in my clinic is that couples tell each other what they do not want. They often are so focused on what they do not want that they are not even aware of what it is that they do want instead. Understanding what you want, what this is going to look like, how you would like your partner to behave, is crucial for getting what you want. Then of course you need to find a way to communicate this in a non-judgmental way so your partner will be able to understand and listen to your needs.
Takeaway: Communicate clearly what you want and need in order to get it. This will offer you the safety you need in order to grow.
Reading this, you might be surprised to know that I actually had a wonderful first time ever skiing experience. No, it was not a stress-free or challenge-free week, but nevertheless it was a powerful, wonderful and fun one. I am keen to return and become even more confident on the slopes. Watch the space for more learning experiences…
This article was written by couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, therapist supervisor, founder of The Village (getthevillage.com), and has been the Chair of Imago Relationship Therapy UK since 2013.