The Unlived Life

“Mummy? Why are you crying?”

It was Christmas and we were watching the performance in the film ‘Nativity!’. Yep. The one where the primary school kids get up on stage and sing ‘Sparkle and Shine’ in the hope that ‘Hollywood’ will be watching. And I was in floods.

My son passed me a tissue. My daughter looked to my son and my husband for reassurance that this wasn’t something she should be worried about.

You see, when I was a kid, I wanted to be on the stage. I loved the adrenalin rush of speaking out to a dim, hushed crowd. The liberation of being able to step into someone else’s shoes, if only for a short time. The time came to decide my route; was it to be drama school or academia? I erred on the side of caution. ‘I can be an actor later, if university doesn’t work out’ – I thought.

How many of us have walked away from a creative endeavour with the false promise that we’ll come back to it later? The longer we leave it, the harder it becomes. Responsibility gets in the way, and before we know it, we’re living sepia lives devoid of colour.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change my life and the people in it for the world. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have ended up on the red carpet and even if I did, I couldn’t have hacked the fame. But unlived lives have a habit of haunting us. They appear as whispers in the back of our mind. What if? Why not? Or they come out in uncontrolled sobs during a family movie…

Once I made the connection between the crying and the unlived life, I decided to do something about it. I joined a local adult drama class. We’re terrible. Absolutely disastrously terrible. So much so, that for the upcoming production, the audience is likely to be outnumbered by the cast. But who cares? I’m enjoying the freedom of pretending to be someone else for a few hours, before coming back and resuming my role as mum/wife/coach/responsible adult. Funny how pretending to be someone else can make me feel more like myself.

Will I still cry next Christmas when Nativity comes on the TV? Probably. But it doesn’t matter because I’m doing something to address my unlived life whilst retaining full respect for my actual, chosen, real, loved life.

What can you do to address your unlived lives? What might be possible if you remembered what it was like to dream big?


Helen Barnes
Helen Barnes
Helen Barnes is a qualified Coach & Consultant, with 15 years’ experience in PR and Comms across the creative industries. Problem-solver, diplomat, strategist, and empath, she helps high-achieving creative professionals to navigate the challenges of work, re-evaluate their priorities, and to recalibrate their future so that it is more aligned with their purpose. Helen is passionate about supporting people in positions of responsibility within high-pressure environments; particularly those who are also trying to juggle work with family. Often they feel overwhelmed, alone in their struggles, frustrated, or disempowered. Helen helps them to see the wood for the trees, act on what is within their control and learn to be at peace with what is not.  Life is all about balance, and with the pressures of volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous workplaces, it’s all too easy to lose sight of what really matters.  Helen helps her clients to identify what’s not working in their lives; to adjust their mindset or to course-correct.  To re-discover their identity, and see their future with fresh eyes. She lives in London with her husband and two children, and writes about values-led leadership, the evolution of workplace culture, personal development, life, and family.

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  1. Beautifully written Helen!

    I really love the self awareness of connecting the dots between your tears and perceived ‘missing out’ life choices.
    And then… you took action. This is always were the healing begins.

    Welcome to the Tribe/Family!

  2. What a lovely piece, Helen. It sounds like you have found a tribe who doesn’t think this activity is “too way out” or a waste of time. I wonder if that isn’t what everybody wants?

    Some are fortunate that they can make a living by doing what they love, but for me, the main point is that somebody else wants to do something I love with me. Not whether it is necessarily a source of income, applause, fame, or otherwise externally validated. It is, however, important to find those who don’t think it is a waste of time.

    • Hi Charlotte. There are indeed many ways to find creative outlets – it doesn’t have to be a full-time job. As you say, finding a community of like-minded individuals is the key.

  3. Dear Helen,

    Goodness me, you describe in the most moving manner, the reality of being yourself or acting another self.

    Actors, professional or amateur go ‘in character’. They actually become the character they are portraying. I have witnessed this in a tiny theatre in Winchester, with amateurs actors. You see their expressions change as they become the character. Amazing. It sounds to me as though your true self has always been there, but to access it you have to ‘pretend to be someone else’, which suggests your true self is always there but on a different platform.

    This essay is most thought provoking.

    Thank you

  4. There is so much richness and loveliness to ponder here, I love all of it. We can get caught up in the “if only’s” and look back at all the forks in our paths and wonder if some of them would’ve yielded results more magical or invigorating or… something other than where we are. We can whitewash those choices with theories and possibilities of less struggle, more ease, fewer disappointments, more success – however we want to color or tint things from the past.

    I’m old enough now to realize that there is still a wealth of joy and possibility to be had. Some might say that I settle for less because things may not be on as grand a scale as one might have found if we had taken that risk on the other fork way back when. But I choose the joy that fills me, and the theatre group that I joined 20 years ago does fine work, takes pride in good shows… but the real joy is in the other story tellers, the other thespians, as it were, who stepped out of their lives and decided to bond together for 9-12 weeks or however long it takes. The play is the thing, and long after the set is struck and the lights are out, you have the stories, the friendships and the memories no one can take from you.

    Take a bow on this one, Helen… you done good.

    • I love that Tom, thank you. Some people need the ‘grand scale’ – others prefer simplicity. All of it is perfect as long as you’re choosing what’s right for you. Amazing that you’ve continued with the theatre group for so long! It must be a very special group. Thanks for sharing your experiences. (And for the encouragement…!)

  5. Hello Helen,

    Bravo, bravo, bravo! Can you hear my applause? I sure hope so, and it is much deserved, for several reasons. 1. You wrote and shared a well-written post that is going to inspire many. 2. You’re living with awareness, of what is a real dream in your heart. 3. You’re taking action! Here’s my personal note: I don’t think that your acting group is “Absolutely disastrously terrible” at all! I’d love to be in the audience watching your performance. Truth!

    • Hi Art.
      Thank you!! I’m really glad the piece resonated with you and you’re right – I should not be self-deprecating (that’s a growth point for me!) I’m sure we’re not that bad!!

  6. Thanks for commenting Mark! I agree completely.
    Do you remember what it was like to believe that you could do anything? When you’re a kid anything seems possible and it’s such fun trying different things. I think we get a bit jaded when we get older and forget that we can STILL do anything!! It’s never too late…

  7. Terrific reflection, Helen. Truth is, regardless of which path you choose, there will always be an “unlived life” there that exists only in the “what if…” part of our minds.

    Like you, I am very happy with my life in the way that it turned out, so I wouldn’t dare trade it for those unlived lives I didn’t choose along the way. But, indeed, I think there is value in reminiscing about those unlived lives and in staying in touch with those other ambitions we once had. It keeps us in touch with the totality of who we really are as a person. Thanks so much for your wonderful article!