What’s your deepest, darkest fear? Think about that for a second. You don’t need to say it out loud or anything. I just want you to think of it.
You know what mine was? Being afraid to be me. For 31 years of my life, I lived it worrying about how other people saw me, what they thought of me, what they said about me. If someone said something bad, hurtful, started a rumor about me, I’d be devastated. I’d carry it like weight around my neck. I’d get sad and cry, or I’d get angry and lash out. I could never figure out why.
Now though, today, as I sit here and write this, I know why; I’ve finally figured it out. It’s because I cared too much about the wrong people, and I wasn’t being kind to myself.
For the majority of my life, I’ve been nice. I’ve been a really nice guy. I always hated disagreeing with people. I never really spoke my mind unless it got to the point where I got angry. Now, I say I’ve been a nice guy, but I’ve also made mistakes, made bad decisions and hurt people’s feelings. But the one thing I’ve never enjoyed is making someone feel bad about themselves. I hated whenever that’s happened. I literally felt sick in the pit of my stomach when it did. The one thing I’ve always loved has been when I’ve made people smile. Since a very young age, I’ve wanted to improve another human being’s life in whatever way I could. That’s been my dream, but I’m only following and living my dream now.
The reason I never did what I wanted to do is very simple. I was afraid. In fact, I was terrified. I’ve traced it back to my childhood and most notably to the teachers who claimed to be educating me. They taught me alright. They taught me to be afraid. You might be wondering how they did that, and I’ll explain. When in second class, my teacher, who was the Vice Principal, and also married to the Principal, thought the best way to teach me was through physical abuse. She used to beat me if I got a question wrong. If I was talking in class, she would hit me with a ruler, her hand, her fist, whatever she felt like. I was around 7 at the time.
When I went into 6th class, I was 11, and her husband, who was the principal, taught me using the same methods as his wife. He would punch me in the side of the head with anything from a rubber pipe to his fists, often for something as simple as packing my bag too early. This was in 1995 when it was supposed to be illegal to do so. It never stopped them. It happened to a few kids in my class, but I always got it the worst. What I also noticed was that it never happened to the children from wealthy backgrounds. Maybe that’s just a coincidence.
My Mother often complained, but nothing was ever done about it. I was also bullied quite a lot by other kids. They were only copying what the teachers were doing though, right? Back then, in a small village, you daren’t speak up, so the only way she could protect me was by literally keeping me home. This is the reason I missed so much during primary and secondary school. It’s also the reason why I’ve developed such a strong intuition which serves me so well now.
Once, I was jumped by a few kids from the class below me, and one of them karate chopped me in the throat, and I nearly died as a result. This was the final straw for my mother. One of the few friends we had in the village told my mother the only way she could get any kind of justice would be to go down the legal route. All we ever wanted was an apology, someone to stand up and say this child has been wronged; no one ever did.
Seven years later it went to court. We brought a case against the school for the particular incident where I was nearly killed by the karate chop. At this point I had lost pretty much all my friends. They were told by their parents and the local gossips, “Stay away from him. Don’t let him near you. He’s trouble. If you’ve an accident, he’ll sue you.” Most of my family told me I’d shamed the family name for going to court and standing up to being bullied. At this point, I hardly had a friend in the world. My mother, who drove a local school bus, had to arrive at her bus almost every morning to be greeted by a load of slurs written on the bus about her son and us as a family. The trauma of everything we went through is the reason she suffers so badly with depression and anxiety, even now. While writing this, I phoned her to ask if it was okay to talk about her struggles right now, and she said, “John, its something I’m going to take to my grave, I just can’t get over all of the things that happened to you.” Hearing that hurts me more than any beating I ever got.
That morning in court, I was sick with nerves. I still remember the feeling. I was an 18 year old young man, and still as scared as the 7 year old that was beaten regularly. We won the case against the school. We accepted an offer they made, and it was said to be a significant amount, at the time, but it wasn’t. However, it was the closest thing to an apology we would ever get. As I was the first person in Ireland to ever successfully win a case of this kind, it brought a lot of media attention. And as I was told, I tarnished the good name of the village where I grew up.
During secondary school, I started with a clean slate and was very well liked and doing well. That all changed on my 13th birthday. I was jumped by about 8 to 10 people who decided to beat me up, for no other reason than the fact that it was my birthday. After getting a pretty bad beating, there were 3 or 4 students expelled from school, and I was yet again made to be an outcast because I was the one who got them expelled. At least this time the school handled it appropriately, but I lost the people I considered my friends, and I had to go through the next two years of school with hardly a friend to my name.
I left school at 15, to become a plumber. I always tell people it was a really bad decision for me, but also a really bad decision for the poor people whose homes I flooded as a result of becoming a really bad plumber. I continued to do this for 10 plus soul-destroying years afterwards. And in typical fashion of what I grew up with, I was also bullied and beaten on the job, for quite a while. Because I left school at 15, I didn’t receive a yearbook. Funnily enough, I recently found out that in the yearbook, I was given a brief mention and it said something along the lines of ‘no one quite knows what he’s doing or where he went’ and there wasn’t even a photo of me.
My desire to go to work with people never left me, so I applied for various social care classes. I did everything you’re supposed to do in order to be accepted as a mature student. I volunteered my time for a number of months, working with local youths trying to get them back into education or gainful employment. I also took part in courses working with the homeless, helping them to get integrated back into mainstream society. Every time I applied, they’d ask me why I was applying for that particular course, and each time I answered, “Because I want to help people.” However, because I missed so much school growing up, and because I had been out of the education system for so many years, I was told each time I wasn’t a strong enough candidate to be accepted as a mature student.
What happened in my childhood has stayed with me all my life. But so has the belief that I could do something impactful for others, or to help people as I always thought it was best described. Two years ago I read about a concept called Suspended Coffees, where you can buy a cup of coffee for a stranger as a gesture of kindness.I loved the idea as soon as I read about it. At the time I didn’t even drink coffee, but it gave me the chance to create the community I’d always dreamed of, the one I wished and cried for so much of my life, and the best part was, I could hide behind a computer screen and create it. No one could hurt me this time, or so I thought.
On the 27th of March, 2013, at 2:30 am in the morning, I setup a Facebook page dedicated to growing the Suspended Coffees concept and getting as many people as possible to join. I planned to get as many cafes as I could to offer it in their communities. I wanted to build a platform that only shared good news, stuff that made people happy. But most of all, I wanted it to be one that promoted the importance of kindness. I also had an added goal of meeting a lovely lady by the name of Ellen DeGeneres (still working on that one, you can help!).
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no idea what it would become. Hiding behind the computer didn’t actually help me. I made countless mistakes. I was hurt by so many people and betrayed by people who I really thought cared about me, and I hid. I hid for almost 18 months, during a time where I struggled to provide for my family. I struggled to put food on the table for my wife and four children. We had our electric disconnected more times than I can remember. But what I struggled most of all with, was being kind to myself. I was running a movement of kindness, which at this point, had over 100,000 followers, and I was being horrible to myself, in my thoughts, my words, my actions. I cried almost every day, and I struggled with depression. I even thought about taking my own life on more than one occasion.
My wife Erin also struggled. She’s battled with severe depression for over 10 years, and in the first two years of me running SC, it was especially bad because she could see how much I was hurting. I remember her asking me, “Where is this going, John? What are you doing with it?” I was working for hours on end just running a Facebook page. I simply answered, “I don’t know, but it feels right.”
For the first time in my life, I was happy doing what I was doing, and I asked her to believe in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. Thankfully she did, because if it wasn’t for her and our incredible children, none of this would have been possible. Erin’s always been there to pick up the pieces, even when those pieces have been me. She always pushes me to be me, even when she’s going through incredibly hard times herself.
I also had the good fortune of meeting real friends who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. About a year into Suspended Coffees, I met two really amazing ladies, Tracey and Shannon, and they helped me tremendously. They spent countless hours helping me get things organized, bringing on new volunteers that had the same passion and beliefs as I did, and I consider myself very fortunate indeed. They’ve all become wonderful friends. My dear friend and coach, Dalj, really taught me to be kinder to myself. Marc Winn gave me the incredible honor of speaking at TEDx in Guernsey this past March, on why kindness matters, Suspended Coffees, and how we’ve built a worldwide movement of over 300,000 followers on social media, and over 2000 cafes actively promoting Suspended Coffees worldwide. Darren Robson from the MOE foundation in the UK, gifted me my training to become a qualified coach. The list of people who have continuously helped me, for no other reason than being kind, goes on and on. There are so many amazing people, way too many to list, who believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself, people who have helped me build a movement which is impacting hundreds of thousands of lives, on a daily basis.
Because I’ve been trapped in my past for so long, it’s been hard to transform into the new me; it’s been hard to leave all the crap from my past behind. Last month two of the most beautiful people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, AJ & Melissa Leon, founders of Misfit, Inc flew me out to Fargo, North Dakota to speak at a conference called misfit con, which isn’t really a conference. It’s more of a love letter to the people they care most about in the world. They got me to stand in a room full of people and share my story. Over 150 strangers who are collectively known as misfits, people who don’t fit in, people who are changing the world for the better, attended the event. They’re some of the coolest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and now my dearest of friends.
It was while I gave my talk and I told them my biggest fears that I laughed and cried, shared my story, and I told them how scared I was of being me, how scared I was of asking for help. I told them how upset I was about how I’d spoken at a TEDx event and was too afraid to share my full story. But I felt incredibly safe in this room full of friends I’d just met, so I decided to try and conquer my fear and I asked every single person in the room for one thing, be it a hug, a hand shake, to sign my book, or anything they felt inspired to do. I received a standing ovation which blew me away, and afterwards, I came to a realization. I finally realized that you’ve got to be you, you can’t let anyone take away your happiness and you can’t live your life being fearful of others. As the lovely Nicole showed me, fear doesn’t actually exist; it’s just a word. I no longer worry about what anyone says or thinks about me. I’ve let go of that fear. I’ve finally let it go. After all these years, I’m finally me, and you know what? It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever done in my life.
The hardest thing in the world for all of us is to be kind to ourselves, and you may think you’re alone, but trust me when I say that everyone struggles with it. The thing is that you don’t have to. Just start being kind to yourself and watch the magic happen. This is the reason I’m not just a coach; I’m actually a kindness coach. I work with people to help them be kinder to themselves, whether it’s in business, life, relationships, or whatever. There is no part of your life that wouldn’t benefit from more kindness. I always thought I was thick, stupid, and not good enough. My teachers told me enough for it to stick, but I’m not. Now I realize I’ve a gift; I’ve a gift for helping people see things differently, a gift for working with people and helping them be kinder to themselves. None of that would have been possible if I didn’t overcome the greatest battle of my life, one I took 31 years to overcome; to be kinder to myself.
I’ve spent my life being afraid, but not anymore. A few months ago someone asked me what I do, what I am, and I struggled to say what I was. Today I know what I am. I’m a misfit, I’m a social entrepreneur, I’m a kindness coach, I’m a writer, I’m anything I want to be. I’m going to be even more than that, but that’s a story for another day. 🙂
If you take away anything from what I’ve written, please let it be this. You should never wait to be who you want to be, and never be afraid of it. Live a life of purpose and meaning. Live a life that’s true to you.
Please, if you do one thing today, share my story and video with everyone you know, because kindness really does matter. It’s changed my life, for the better. If it wasn’t for the kindness of so many, I really wouldn’t be here. I’m dedicating this to the misfits, the people who think they don’t fit in, or for anyone who’s ever felt alone.
Featured Image: Photo credit Raul Colon