We all secretly knew this to be true but it took Fleabag for us to know we knew it.

Clearly it’s not the only lesson to take from that programme (the main one being that, if that’s what priests look like these days, we need to start going to church a bit more…) but it really stuck with me, not least cos of my own experiences.

I was reminded again last week during my bi-monthly trip to the hairdresser.

Now, nothing strikes fear into my heart like a trip to the hairdresser. I monitor covertly every snip of the scissors and dab of colour as I masquerade as a person hugely interested in the latest copy of ‘Now!’ or New!’ or some other excitably named trashy publication.

There is some sense to my neuroticism as, let’s face it, the stakes are high at the hairdresser. One false move by the scissor-wielders and you’ll be wandering around with a peroxide blonde mullet for the next year (trust me, it happened to me in 2003 and that was not a good year).

There’s also the ‘big reveal’ element of it all. That wait is like the Strictly Come Dancing episode where they pair off the dancers. Except a lot less fun. And if haircuts were pro dancers, I’ve had more than my fair share of Antons and far too few Gorkas.

There’s also something particularly awkward about trying to have a discussion in those hair salon mirrors that highlight every blemish. And there’s a weird power dynamic involved with trying to negotiate with some uber-stylish millennial when you’ve turned up in your trackie bottoms with no make up on and hair that’s not been washed for the best part of a week (so you can get your money’s worth).

But it’s not just about the hair.

While your average hair salon is a crucible of awkward conversations, these bottom-clenchingly difficult interactions are something that we all have to deal with in life, in the hairdresser or not.

I know I’m not the only one who suffers from an aversion to it all. Women particularly suffer from it. We are taught from day 1 of our lives to seek social cohesion at all costs. This can result in us squashing any uncomfortable feelings that we think others might not like, sticking a big smile on our faces and overcompensating by being uber-nice. In the therapy world,we call this incongruence– when the face we show the world doesn’t match our insides. It’s not good for us and it’s not good for the other person involved. Because how will they ever learn what we do and don’t like if we don’t tell them?

Part of getting older for me is about acting in spite of my fear and having these bold conversations I’m scared to have. What I’ve noticed is that, if I sidestep these conversations, the universe will keep sending me similar scenarios, be it with a friend or family member I find challenging, an aggravating call centre assistant, the hairdresser or a boss, until I adjust my actions so they’re more in tune with how I actually feel.

Things I’ve found helpful for such times include:

  1. Talking about how YOU feel, not what THEY’VE doneg. “I feel disappointed, I feel uncomfortable, I feel anxious”. It’s harder for people to argue the toss over your feelings than it is over facts.
  2. Get your script in order– prepare sentences or phrases that you feel comfortable with before you go into situations you’re likely to find challenging. I don’t drink alcohol and, in the early days of being sober, I used to have a prepared stock phrase I’d tell those people who asked me about it. Having that prepared in advance made me feel more confident about those situations and if someone kept pressing me on it, I’d just repeat slightly different variations of it until they got bored.
  3. Check your body language– a very effective way of wielding power in the workplace is to either loom over someone shorter than you (think Donald Trump in the pre-US election debates with Hillary Clinton) or the opposite; to remain seated at your  comfortable desk while your acolyte hovers around you. So, when you’re feeling nervous in a conversation, check how you’re standing and what you’re doing with your body. If you can adjust your body language to become more open and less timid then it often has a massive knock on effect on how you feel and on what comes out of your mouth.
  4. Not everything has to be resolved right now– If you’re feeling overwhelmed and finding it hard to express yourself, ask for a bit more time. It’s actually quite rare that things absolutely have to be decided on the spot. And if you’re getting cloudy in your head then it’s absolutely OK to go for a walk round the corner, call a friend, do whatever you need to do to remind yourself of what’s important to you again before you have to re-enter the fray.

On that note, I had a bit of a breakthrough with my hairdresser this time. Having booked in for a cut and colour I was getting very ‘cloudy’ in my head about what colour I actually wanted. So I took a deep breath and said ‘“I’m not 100% sure which way to go on this. Let’s postpone for now and I’ll think about it further”. Such a little thing to the outside world but such a big thing to me.

And you know what? As I type this, there’s not a peroxide mullet in sight.

Thanks Fleabag.

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