In the Flow

Irina Umnova


She wore her eye-catching red patent leather ballet shoes until they were old and soft, but editor and psychologist Irina Umnova did not intend to wear them onstage in Moscow’s elegant theatre. Called upon to deliver an impromptu introduction for a keynote speaker, she learned a lesson that has served her well since her 2015 immigration to Canada.  


I loved them although I knew that I could never buy them. Shoes were very expensive during Perestroika in the Soviet Union, and besides, my size 12 was very hard to find. There was no reason to think or dreaming about those red, patent leather ballet shoes with bows. Many years later, I saw them in a small, random store during my first business trip abroad—size 12, 19.99. And, of course, I bought them.

Red shoes are a symbol of a courageous, self-confident woman. I wore my red ballerina flats until they turned into worn, old slippers. Then I kept them in my office just in case I might need them one day. And that day had come.

What happens to us when we organize an event which is very important, significant, powerful? And it is you who are responsible for everything. Usually, after weeks of work, here comes the event, but we can’t even enjoy it. All we can do is worry. But…that was not the case this time.

Psychologies was a magazine I edited for some years. In the summer of 2012, we invited the outstanding American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to visit Moscow and speak about his concept of flow. Flow refers to the moment when we are completely immersed in an activity and feel the most complete satisfaction of our lives. We can only experience this harmony if we trust our feelings and desires and follow them.

This concept was quite new for Russians because many generations had grown up in a completely different paradigm. The values of a group, of a country, of humanity, were always much more important than one’s personal needs and feelings. Thinking about others first and ignoring oneself was the right—and the only—way to live. 

The lecture was to take place in the iconic Moscow venue Polytechnic Museum. The details were finalized; tickets were sold out. And I was ready to sink in my chair to listen to him.

Before leaving the office, I took off the high heels I always wore when working and grabbed my almost forgotten old red slippers. Surely, they would help me relax and feel pleasure. Then I took a taxi to the venue.

Almost a thousand people filled the magnificent hall. I was about to take my seat when, suddenly, my colleague approached. The celebrity who was supposed to moderate this event wasn’t coming. I had to replace him.

What? I did not want this! I’m not dressed for this! My high heels are in the office! I need my high heels!

But here I am on stage. I am confused. I am upset. It is embarrassing to be here in old slippers. I start talking, but I stumble. I get lost: What will all these people think of me? I am in despair.

It becomes deathly quiet.

Suddenly, I understand that people are here to meet the Doctor of Psychology. They only want information about him. They do not care about me or what I am wearing. All it takes is 30 seconds for me to see this. So, I put myself, my self-consciousness, in parentheses. Suddenly, I feel free and easy. I start to speak calmly and clearly. Everything is fine!

Now I live in Canada. Everyday I try to make my English better. I meet lovely people, but when I start talking to them, I am still embarrassed. I stumble in my speech. The language disappears, and the thought returns: What do they think of me? 

The image of my old red shoes reminds me of why I am here. It’s almost as if they talk to me, tell me to let go. I forget how I look. It just ceases to bother me. I remember that I am here to listen and try to understand. And to speak so that I can be understood. I must do that the way that I can now. No more and no less. I must be patient.

I smile and continue the conversation. I am taking my next step. And my next step. And my next step.

IRINA UMNOVA, journalist and psychotherapist, arrived in Canada in 2015. In Russia, she worked as the deputy Editor-in-Chief of the international project Psychologies Magazine. She has a private practice in Toronto as a Registered Psychotherapist.

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