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Interview with Marie-Claire Ashcroft
I recently caught up with inspirational coach and Happiness Ninja Marie-Claire Ashcroft. Apart from being a Happiness Ninja, she can also be found out and about with her camera, organising Unicorn Club events and running the I Dare You movement.
Marie-Claire, apart from being a Happiness Ninja, you do some other exciting things as well. Can you tell me about those?
I decided to become self employed in 2008 as a photographer. I learnt first hand that running a business teaches you your strengths, your weaknesses and what you’re absolutely terrible at. After a while I decided that I had low self-esteem and I wasn’t making very good business decisions. I decided that I needed to look into why I didn’t like myself and why I had these weird patterns showing up in my business, and through that I decided to become a Happiness Ninja.
Can you tell me about the journey to realisation you had through your business?
Before I even started my business I knew deep down I was quite creative and rebellious and felt that I was to supposed to have an adventurous and interesting life and that societies ‘normal’ path wasn’t for me. But I didn’t have any confidence in myself so I just kept looking at what other people were doing and what I thought was expected of me, but I was dragging my feet when I tried to fit into those expectations.
I’d look at cool arty or ‘travelly’ people and thought I wasn’t as good as them, so I could never do that. But the more I tried to fit into what I should be doing the more depressed I was getting. I was put on antidepressants shortly after Uni and started seeing a counsellor. I didn’t like the anti-depressants because they flat-lined the peaks and troughs, and while I didn’t get the lows I dreaded, I didn’t get the highs either.
Counselling for me was like opening a can of worms and poking around but never really knowing why. It felt like picking at a scab for the hell of it.
I had a job corporate job but I was really depressed, so eventually I plucked up the courage to become self-employed. But nobody really teaches you how to run a business, so you look for examples around you and go to networking events and free workshops, people tell you need a PR, you need to do marketing, you need to do SEO – so you have all these “need-to-dos” and “should”. My business was growing but because I didn’t have the confidence to think I was doing ok, I thought I needed someone to show me how to be in business. I started working with a mentor who was another successful photographer, but her approach was very left brain as opposed to my right brain creative approach. It made me unhappy in my business but I didn’t realise how unhappy I was until my grandma died in 2014.
I was devastated and ran away to NY with my DJ boyfriend – I had a great time in NY and Canada. But I remember when it was time to come home I had a breakdown in La Giardia airport, and I was just literally crying and snotty all over my cup of tea as I realised the life I’d created wasn’t for me, it wasn’t true to me. So when I came back – because I still didn’t know what it was I wanted and I was so closed off to who I was – I didn’t realise that I had anxiety underlying the depression. I went on a self-sabotage, self-destruct journey – ignoring my customers, falling out with friends and wrecking everything because I knew it wasn’t right but didn’t know how to fix it.
I decided to go away to Thailand, and it was the first time I realised I’d ever done anything for myself and by myself. It was a revelation – not having to answer to anyone, or have to make a decision. I took a journal and it was the first time I’d really connected to myself. My idea of bliss became sitting under a palm tree in a hammock with a coconut shake and just writing. I learnt about manifesting there because a lot of the stuff I wrote about became true. It made me realise that these cycles of things whizzing in your head, you can only repeat them so many times before they repeat again. So when you write them out, you get past that and see whats underneath. And I hadn’t experienced that before.
While I was in Thailand I asked for an answer for me to live a life that was true to me – I wanted more freedom than my photography business gave me. I wrote that I wanted to know what the next step was for me and one night after I got home, I realised I couldn’t sleep. I got up to write down my thoughts and I think it was the first experience of me having a download. It was literally the words for my “I Dare You” video.
Tell me about the I Dare You movement.
I had the idea to dare people to do things that would push them outside of their comfort zone and look for happiness and be more confident. But I couldn’t tell anyone for ages. My partner didn’t know what I was up to and it took me months to tell him.
Once I committed to the project, it was a case of everything I'd learnt about yourself had to fall away and I had to get to know myself again. I learnt to allow myself to feel the feelings I was having instead of suppressing them, and the more I did that then memories of when I was a kid would come up that I didn’t remember.
So I started the photography as a way to capture memories that I might otherwise forget. I got tired of being with friends who would say “Remember that time we went to….” and I had no recollection of it. I called my business Fluke Photography initially to remember my life. First it was a diary, then it became a gratitude diary to remind myself of good people and times in my life that I forgot about when I was feeling depressed.
Photography has been a step into my happiness and getting to know myself. I also started paid jobs working in nightclubs, which I saw as a bridge because I didn’t have the confidence to approach and talk to people. My confidence grew over time and I became the Happiness Ninja.
I also blogged about painful pasts, anxiety and depression, and people really responded and related to that and it helped them. And my friends were a bit shocked because they thought I was this happy person and they weren’t used to a happy person coming out to say they suffered from depression. It has given people permission to talk about what is still thought of as a stigma.
Do you have clients or groups – how do you work?
I work with all sorts of people and I find that the people that are drawn to me are one of two types – those who are naturally quite rebellious and know that they want something else. Then the other type are those following society’s path and don’t have a huge dream, but they like to do something a bit naughty and walk on the wild side occasionally.
How do you work with someone on the treadmill when they need permission and be safe while following their happiness?
I like to use baby steps, as people assume that if they’re not 100% happy with where they are that they think they’ve got to chuck the towel in and recreate from scratch from what life has to look like.
So I ask how can we make what you have now better?
By starting with baby steps, like a phrase to say in the morning, such as “I start my day with a Yay!” This is a simple affirmation that gives you permission to have awesome things and to look out for them. You don’t have to divorce your husband, tell your boss he’s a twat and leave your children. And that may be for some people all that they need.
Do you find they feel isolated when they begin with these changes?
Yes, I felt quite lonely when I started making those changes so it helps to have someone who knows what to expect.
Your vibe attracts your tribe, so be more yourself and you start to attract people who are more aligned with your own values. Suddenly your life takes on added colours.
What do you say to people who have an excessive need to be liked?
I like to use the “I am” task where they write all the things that they are. And some people have trouble saying positive things about themselves as they think they’ll be judged, but this is an exercise they don’t have to show anyone. And they can collect snippets of compliments and nice things that people say to them and keep them in a journal to refer to when they’re feeling low. It’s guaranteed to pick up your mood when you’re beating yourself up. Even if you have to stick post it notes everywhere, on the bathroom mirror for example, particularly as many of us women use the mirror as an excuse to beat ourselves up, but the note reminds you to say something nice to yourself.
What is one of the important benefits of doing this type of work?
I would say it's developing bounce-back-ability, cause if you’ve trained yourself to look at positive things and to understand things like judgement and triggers or having your buttons pressed, you don’t tend to hang on to those things any more, where before I could hold on to those things for weeks. The other thing is about accepting it rather than fighting it. For example, today I didn’t have a very productive day, so instead of beating myself up for that as soon as I accept that I’m just having a bad day or a bad moment, then I can bounce back much better.
What is a typical day in the life of a happiness ninja?
There’s never been a typical day, but it might be getting up when I said I wanted to with a little morning ritual. I say “Start your day with a Yay!”, have a hot lemon drink, meditate for 15 minutes and brain-vomit for 15 minutes. I find the morning my best time for writing content and articles, and love working in my PJs. Then afternoons are for meeting with clients or photography shoots or networking. Evenings are a little dull at the moment as we’re renovating – maybe I have to work on my evenings but for now curling up with a good book works for me!
Have you found that being more of who you are helps you stand out more in the world of coaching?
Definitely being myself, as I’m basically like a big kid. I’ve got no shame about wearing Unicorn pants and tiaras, so it’s kind of like – you know Marmite? – well it’s a love or hate thing. So people either go – where have you been hiding all my life? – and that goes with the Happiness Ninja and the photography, or they go “What the actual hell – how are you not locked up?” I think also being vulnerable and open and saying I’ve been depressed rather than saying “I’m untouchable and you’ll never know about my life”, so being open and accessible.
Are you still doing photography, is that separate from being a Happiness Ninja?
When I started it, it felt like too completely different things, so I came up with the term Professional Rebel because I like to do things my own way. I’ve found that things have started to merge and I think it’s quite cool. The Happiness Ninja involves organising workshops and icebreakers for corporate events which I then photograph as well so yes, it can be tied up together. When I do a Unicorn Club event it means they’ve got the right photographer to go with it.
Tell me about your Unicorn Club events?
It’s a thing done by a Happiness Ninja which is a grown-up kids party, and maybe people won’t admit that they don’t feel happy and maybe they wouldn’t mind a bit of silliness. I make everyone write down whatever is on their mind and taking their energy, and they have to chuck it in the “Fuck It Bucket”. So that’s quite cathartic.
Then we have colouring in, and plastiscene and crafts and google eyes and tin foil and board games, and it’s so funny because sometimes my partner’s kids come and help me setup and they say “People pay you to do this?” It’s scientifically proven that play helps you think more creatively and helps with stress and anxiety it’s good to make friends, and if someone whacks you with a six foot balloon you’ve got to go and whack ‘em back.
If people want to get in touch with you about running their own Unicorn Club or getting you to run one for them can they do that?
Yes, we have a licensing agreement available or you can hire us to come and sprinkle our special brand of silliness at your place.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt so far in your journey?
Well, there’s loads of them. Most importantly it’s coming back to yourself and realising that you’re ok. Somewhere along the way we lose our childish enthusiasm and I think that’s the cause of everyone’s unhappiness. They’ve lost the belief that they have the right to be here and make a difference.
Are there any other daily rituals that can help our readers bring more happiness into their lives that you can share?
Yes, I’ve got a little book called “Today’s Hoorays” and is basically another version of a gratitude diary. I write “Hooray for this” and “I’m glad that happened” so I can reflect on the day’s good things and go to bed in a good mood.
FInish the following sentences:
When I’m faced with a challenge I….breathe! I don’t react straight away, I don't get triggered and so can calm and collect myself before reacting.
The most difficult thing about being happy is…remembering to do it! It’s all habit, so at the start ingrain the patterns. Replace sadness with happiness. Don't use an “I am” statement with a negative emotion, change it to an “I have” statement.
If I knew this when I started out as a Happiness Ninja, it would have saved a lot of time…other people’s opinions don’t matter.
What have you found helps you the most with the experience of anxiety?… I’ve embraced meditation and acupuncture which helps, and having a very supportive partner who’s had his own journey with anxiety helps to talk it out.
I believe…in Unicorns! And Magic 🙂
My favourite quote is…”Tears are like farts, better out than in!”
My favourite happiness resource is…my Today’s Hooray’s book because its slaps the negative thinking out of the room and reminds me how awesome my life is!