I’ve been away over six weeks now and over the past few days have really started to reflect on what I’ve done, where I’ve been, the people I’ve met and the things I’ve learned. This self-reflection was much needed as the past couple of weeks have felt like a whirlwind of fun and excitement – spent mostly with good friends from back home in various parts of Thailand (the party spots, essentially, which helps explain the need for a pause!)
One of the things I’ve definitely become aware of about myself while being away is my need to feel like I’m doing something, like I’m accomplishing something. This no doubt stems from a Western, middle class upbringing, where I was lucky enough to receive an excellent education and then was propelled into a fast-paced and swiftly progressing career. ‘Success’ and ‘achievement’ for me was defined largely by getting good marks, gaining the appropriate qualifications, meeting deadlines and getting approval from the relevant figures of authority. Although, maybe I’m also a natural-born self-critic and perfectionist. (There’s a good nature – nurture debate in there for sure.) So, while I try to project and follow an attitude of ‘going with the flow’ and ‘living in the moment’, and some may say I am good at this, there is always that niggling voice inside that says ‘you’re not doing enough’ (or fast enough!), ‘you’re not achieving enough’, ‘time is slipping away!’…
For the first few weeks away I allowed myself to quieten this nagging perfectionist inside, as I told myself my initial aim was to settle into my new surroundings, open myself to the experiences and people around me, and work on my own wellbeing (which I did pretty successfully with regular yoga practice, massage treatments, healthy eating and early nights). But, temptation came a calling, as it always does (!): first in Goa, where I met a super fun group of people who showed me the Goan nightlife scene (epic), then when I met my two friends in Thailand for a pre-planned two week holiday, with the main points on the agenda being party, party, party… Well, you can imagine my healing rituals got sidelined for a little bit.
And that’s when the niggling voice came back. And not only during waking hours: for a few nights in a row I had an old recurring anxiety dream in which I’m a university graduate with a First Class degree (this is actually true), but I’ve just realised I have another entire course’s exams to sit in just a few days’ time, which I haven’t attended the classes for throughout the entire year. In the dream I frantically run around campus, which is confusing as I keep getting lost, trying to find the books I need to cram quickly for the exams, or a willing student to lend me their notes. But it becomes a futile search – and time is at the forefront of my mind as the exam date draws ever-closer and I feel utterly lost and panicked as to what to do…
Clearly I have some perfectionism issues, huh?
Having quit a demanding job in marketing in central London, packed up my belongings and put them into storage, and gone off to Asia as the first step in search of building a new life for myself, I need to take notice of this over-critical, self-depricating little madam in my head, as I believe she has in part held me back from finding real peace and happiness during my life. By constantly believing I needed to do more, that it was never quite good enough, that I was never quite good enough (compared to others, or by the standards of expectation I believed were put on me), I never really felt the pride that I probably should have done for my own accomplishments.
In fact, I’ve achieved quite a lot in my life already, as I approach my 30th birthday later this year. From an academic / career perspective, I look pretty good on paper. Recruiters emailing on a regular basis with prospects of very respectably paid jobs attests to that. But, none of that ever really made me happy. The fact I achieved very good grades at school and university I largely put down to the ‘system’ of teaching which instilled in me the skill of memorisation and the attention to detail needed to ‘trick’ the exam boards that I knew and understood everything on the syllabuses. (How much I remember now is frighteningly little.)
Actually, if I think about the things I’ve done in my life that really make me proud, they are not the ones which can be found on my CV. Having travelled the world, much of the time on my own, is one for sure. I know it’s somewhat of a cliche, but the life experience I’ve gained from immersing myself in other cultures and seeing how other societies function is invaluable.
I think it’s important therefore that while on this journey, I try to remind myself that this need to ‘do’ and to ‘accomplish’ does not have to come in the same forms as I was previously conditioned to accept. Right now, my definition of achievement is not based on money earned (which is good, as I’m earning none!), career progression or job title. It’s to do with how much I can learn about myself and grow as a person to become more grounded, more at peace, more confident in myself, and more passionate about life and my place in it. I’m doing that by trying to connect as much as I can with myself (to be conscious of my feelings, needs, doubts and fears), to nurture myself and look after my wellbeing (which doesn’t have to exclude parties – dancing is very good for the soul!), and as much as possible, to live in the present and embrace all that life brings me.
Of course, living in the present all the time may eventually backfire, as if I want to continue living in this way and not be forced to go back to the kind of job and lifestyle I led before (which I don’t), I need something of a plan for the future, which does require an element of structure and discipline. In order to keep the worrying perfectionist inside happy therefore, I’m working on a balanced approach, which means I ‘schedule’ in time in my day for the more practical and mundane duties of modern life (I may be on a beach in Thailand but I still have bills to pay), while also taking time to think about my future (there is a business idea I’m brewing; but I can’t share that yet or I’d have to kill you ;) ). Most importantly though, each day I make sure I set aside time to both look after my physical and mental wellbeing – whether that’s through yoga, rest, or spending time with the people I meet – and also time to simply ‘just be’.
Most of the most amazing things that have happened to me so far in life have been unexpected, and I believe they’ve happened through an openness and willingness I’ve projected for them to come to me. When I let go of expectations and the need to control everything around me, and to know what will happen next, that is when magic happens.