This interview is written by talented journalist and a friend of mine Pavla Lokajova.
A wanderer with a brain for science, Ines Gaston was born and raised in Belgium in a loving family with a Spanish and Algerian background. As most descendants of immigrants, she aimed for a high-profile career. First, she picked up law, despite always dreaming of psychology. “My parents weren’t convinced, but I knew I had to switch majors,” she says of her life’s first hiccup. “I graduated with a degree in clinical psychology and landed an internship and a job no one from my university has ever gotten before.” Everything seemed lined up greatly for Ines – after all, that’s what we’ve been told to do in order to be happy.
But what if you find yourself miserable regardless of global career, with your family, health and love life falling apart? How to push the brakes when life’s moving too fast?
Burnout was the name of the game when something that had started out great – university graduation, job in behavioral psychology, followed by a global career in human resources – eventually turned into a rat race. When and how did you make sense of what was happening?
To understand what happened, I have to go back a couple of years. After graduating with a degree in clinical psychology, my university internship turned into a job, and I found myself working for a startup in the field of innovative behavioural psychology. I loved what I was doing, but it involved long hours, I didn’t have much experience, and on top of that, I had little money to afford my own place. So, I rented a room for cheap in a house belonging to a family with kids. Every day after work, I picked them up from school, entertained them, and worked on my thesis in the evenings. After a year and a half of doing that, I felt very tired. Change was necessary. I wanted to do something holistic in the area of people’s development. But everyone seemed to think I was lacking experience.
I listened to people’s advice and went into corporate HR instead of coaching and training, and I liked the job while I was in it. The company I worked for was soon acquired by a much larger global firm. We underwent the whole craziness of management changes, from corporate identity to very practical things like integrating global tools for all the countries. Although the global team was insanely big, there were only three of us for Belgium and Luxembourg.
I didn’t listen to my body enough
As I was closing the office on Monday, I remember telling my coworkers that I would be late the next day due to a doctor’s visit at 9 AM. I knew I was under a lot of stress. I had a difficult job with difficult management. I didn’t sleep enough. I was healing from a breakup with my partner of five years who fell in love with someone else and forgot to tell me about it. And my sister had just been diagnosed with stage four cancer.
Obviously, I was falling apart. My doctor gave me a sick note: You need some time off, she said. I told her, I don’t have time for this. We started laughing. I realized at that moment the absurdity of my response. I was – and am still – happy to have my brain functioning well. I didn’t know what was going on or what was going to happen, but it was suddenly clear to me that whatever it was I had been postponing, was no longer able to be postponed. Accepting the sick note, I called my boss.
Walk us through the emotions you were feeling at that moment.
I was absolutely terrified, more from the fact that I was facing the unknown than from my boss’s reaction. In the corporate world, I was not obviously sick, yet I was calling them with no definite date when I’d be back. I felt guilty and I felt judged, mostly by myself. It felt so wrong to just be sitting in a café in the middle of a sunny day. My doctor suggested that as a part of my treatment, I should do something nice for myself every day. Go sit in the sun, she said.
How did your relationship with burnout progress from there?
The whole taking care of yourself thing didn’t go well. I did what many people do when faced with a problem – we immediately turn towards action: How can we fix this?
And as a psychologist, I knew exactly what I needed to do: exercise, sleep more and eat healthily. And that’s just what I did. I got a personal trainer and worked out 3 days a week in the gym. I ate healthy, bought all the kitchen supplies, juiced, ate quinoa. I was resting. But not from a relaxed point of view. I was overcompensating. So of course what happened was that I got even more tired. Instead of doing less, I was doing more. More exercise, more cooking. After a few weeks, I had my first panic attack in a supermarket.
Was it another wake-up call?
You would think so. But no. The only result was that I decided I needed therapy. So that’s where I went. And therapy didn’t really work for me because no one could really explain what was going on. No one said: This is burnout, this is what is happening in your body right now and you are probably going to go through this and that, too. Everyone kept saying I needed balance and I was like: My sister’s got cancer, my mother is not coping, my work is politically toxic, I am on sick leave and I have no idea for how long! I thought that I was the problem and that I was the thing that needed fixing. So many people do. That story went on for about 6 months.
What changed the course?
For starters, I got someone else to communicate with my job on my behalf. That was a huge relief. Back then, I wasn’t fully aware, but burnout makes you vulnerable, and if your employer is putting pressure on you (my employer wanted me to resign), you have absolutely no resilience and need someone emotionally uninvolved to handle that for you.
“During burnout, you don’t know who you are, you don’t like yourself, you feel really bad about yourself. You feel guilty and a bunch of other strong emotions.”
Things moved forward from that point on?
Yes. I’d been having thoughts of going to Cuba. During my period of exhaustion, I was often watching Dirty Dancing in the afternoon, sipping wine and dreaming of having an adventure like that. I kept these voices muted for six months, because travelling to Latin America to learn how to dance sounded too indulgent. But then one moment I finally decided: Why not? You might as well do something useful with your time. The initial idea was to go for five months, but I ended up prolonging my stay for a year. On a midnight bus in Peru, I drafted an email to my parents, who were not happy at all. I had a hard time choosing myself at that point and I felt so guilty for staying, but I needed me more than my parents and sister needed me at that point.
I made a decision. Did I feel guilty? You have no idea. Even with traveling, it was a daily battle to give myself permission to do things I really wanted to do, instead of pleasing my parents or making my decisions conditional. For example: “You are short on cash, so you can only go to Brazil if you do this and that.” No, I needed to prove to myself that I was worth investing in. It was a daily practice of allowing myself these things – and many of us are
Did you think of your next career steps back then?
Not at all. I had a thousand and one excuses for not allowing myself to be a coach: limiting beliefs of not being good enough. The truth is, I was not there yet. There was some ground work I needed to do first.
“The biggest challenge in Latin America was to slow down. I was so deep in a mentality of pure survival mode for so long that I did not know how to slow down, enjoy my own company, and do nothing.”
How does one slow down after being told for years and years to speed it up?
There is no single solution. What worked for me is that in order to slow down, I needed to be connected to myself. I created an environment that allowed me to hear what my body and soul had to say. Instead of rejecting them immediately, I had conversations with these ideas. I call it self-compassion. But in order to do so, you need to have some kind of rhythm that allows you to
Our inner programming is so strong. What helps you to choose self-compassion?
Becoming aware that being there for yourself is important. And train yourself to be good at it, to be nice to yourself.
How can we do more of that?
The question is not HOW. The question is WHAT. What are you going to do more of and less of? By answering those, you will figure out the how. If you’re going to do more of giving yourself compliments and investing your time and money in yourself, and less of beating yourself up, then automatically you will grow self-compassion. What I see so often with my clients, and perhaps because I know it so well from my old self, is this mentality of being a poor entrepreneur: Oh, I don’t deserve rest until I finish this and that. No, a massage is a luxury and I’d better invest the money in my business. I’m saying: Hey! You have been working so hard and you deserve this.
Proving re-invention is a never ending process…
The biggest difference between the old me and the new me is that the old me wanted to have everything figured out before trying stuff, and the new me is just trying stuff in order to figure it out. It sounds like a subtle nuance, but it’s a completely different way of living.
“The old me wanted to have everything figured out before trying stuff. The new me is just trying stuff in order to figure it out.”
How did your last transition, from corporate HR to entrepreneur and coach, come about?
I really enjoyed my time in Prague – the culture and even the work – but first of all, I had a Czech contract, not an expat contract, so salary-wise it was a huge step back. I was motivated to do my work, but after a certain time, I wanted a raise. And of course, corporate will always give you a thousand and one excuses why a raise is not possible. I pushed the brakes fast this time. The feeling was just way too familiar.
Funny enough, I found my career direction at that exact time. While Googling something, an NLP (neuro linguistic programming) training in Prague popped up. And I have always wanted to do NLP. The timing felt right, yet I was short on cash for such an investment. But I decided that I was going to go for it anyway, and the trainers agreed I could pay in smaller installments.
During the course, we needed to do a lot of self-development work, and I realized I’d again let myself be this nagging person when it came to work. The course started in February, and I quit my job in May. I was getting better at being resourceful, and when a friend of mine suggested I try house-sitting, I gave it a shot. She knew a couple in Amsterdam who needed to have someone look after their cat while they vacationed in France for five weeks. I brought my two suitcases and took this step while also applying for jobs in Amsterdam.
After many, many, many job interviews, I landed a great job with an amazing salary. It was a complete dream for someone in my financial situation at the time, but something didn’t feel right. What I realized right after I declined, is that by saying no to that job, I actually said yes to my own business.
Did you know it at that time?
Yes, because I was terrified, but the good kind of terrified. I wanted to be my own boss, so I started to apply for psychology jobs and wanted to do coaching on the side. I got a part time offer at a doctor’s office, and after months of apartment hunting, an amazing flat landed in my lap. The only problem? The rent cost more money than I was going to be making! And let’s not forget that I needed some initial capital in order to start my business. Everything felt right, though, so I said yes, being aware of the fact that when I most needed it, I’ve always been resourceful and inventive.
How exactly does one become resourceful in an unstable situation?
One of the ways I was able to pay rent for the first six months was to put the apartment on Airbnb and then stay with friends for two weeks out of a month. To fund my business, I turned to my family – which was very scary, but a necessary step for me to grow. I ended up very thankful for the working capital to get me started.
During the first months of my business, I wasn’t really working except for the doctor’s office. I was just reading a lot, researching a lot, and I didn’t know where I was going until a couple months in. Then everything sort of came together and I finalized Becoming Unstoppable, my first programme, and launched it in Prague. That’s my tradition: every time I do something new, Prague is always the first to have it.
Why Prague for launching and why Amsterdam for living? Is there a reason you picked these cities?
I love Prague and did want to stay there, but for me it was a cultural thing – I’m a psychologist and I don’t speak Czech. And although Czechs are very warm and open to therapy, it’s still a little under the radar. There was a whole market I would miss. Amsterdam is great because not only can I have expats, but Dutch clients also. I have two markets here.
“You need to have the courage to dream – which, sometimes, Czech people have troubles with.”
In one year, you have built your own resilience programme based on your expertise and personal experience, you have one-on-one clients from all over the world and are training resilience in companies. For your business’s anniversary, you went to Bali. What for?
It’s actually a funny story: I was going to apply as a participant to an entrepreneurial bootcamp, but during the selection process it became clear I would be a much better fit as their resilience coach.
How do you decide what the next logical step is for your business?
I think it’s important that, while on the journey, we are clear on our goals so we can stay focused and identify distractions. Going to Bali as a participant would have been a distraction; going there as a business coach was a logical step towards my goals. A lot of people get anxious and frustrated because they don’t have clear focus, or they don’t make it within a deadline.
That’s an interesting approach, as most business books say that you’ve got to do whatever it takes to meet the deadline, because after that, there’s yet another deadline. So, you encourage your clients not to obsess that much, because they’ve got the train moving anyway?
One of the reasons why I slightly disagree with that approach is that sometimes we set deadlines for ourselves, but rarely know what life would bring. A year is a long time, and perhaps your priorities end up changing slightly, so you won’t be able to spend that much time developing your business – but you’re still moving in the right directions. Just make sure you do activities that serve your goal.
“Because many people don’t have clear goals in their lives, they go for distractions. When you do that, you get burnt out.”
I would like to finish off by naming the six fundamentals of your programme Becoming Unstoppable, the necessary pillars every individual needs to develop. Which are those?
My main message around entrepreneurship and succeeding in career and in life is to make sure your foundations are solid. Only then can you build an empire. The foundation stems from these six fundamentals:
- Self – Know who you are and who you need to become. Check-in with yourself on a daily basis and practice self-compassion.
- Brain – Clarity of the mind is key. Why is the brain important? Your brain is adaptable. Whatever you pay attention to, flourishes.
Sobuild the right habits. Understanding the dynamics of your brain is crucial, as 70% of our brain is under our control! So become very aware, since energy flows where the focus goes… are you focusing on the right thing(s)?
- Emotions – Be human. Emotions are messengers. They tell us something about what thoughts we think. The language we use does, too. So express yourself. Be angry or cry or dance happily if you need to. Find a way to be OK with yourself, spend time with yourself.
- Awareness – Awareness is the seed toward transformation. If you want to change, you need to become aware of what it is you need to change and why. Awareness guides you through that process. Make time for how you feel, so you can make the necessary adjustments in your mental programs. Also be aware of your current situation: friends, environment, living, etc.
- Community – You become the average of the people you spend the most time with. So really ask yourself if those people are helping you move forward. Build yourself up surrounded by people who inspire you to grow.
- Consistency – Every goal you envision for yourself will need consistency. Just trust that the things you do will always bring results.