The advice I find myself giving out most to people these days (solicited advice, I hasten to add) particularly when they are feeling directionless or unhappy or without confidence, is this – move to another country.
By this I don’t literally mean move to another country. But I don’t not mean that either. What I’m trying to tell people is, from my point of view, if you’re not happy with your life, don’t know who you are or what you want - throw yourself into totally alien situation. Plan a bit, maybe, but what you’re planning for is unknowable so by the same token, you can’t really plan for it. Because what happens when you turn your world onto its head is this - you deal with it, and while you’re dealing with it, you start to work the other bits out.
I’m really bad at taking my own advice, although who isn’t, actually? I write all of these blogs about loving yourself and being kind to yourself and being your own hero, and then when it comes to me I’ve carried this voice in my head that’s always said, ‘yeah, but not you, because you’re a dick.’ I know, proper unhealthy, right?
I think that the majority of us aren’t fully formed people, with a good balance on who we are and how we should be, when we are thrust into adulthood. We just find our way through it, don’t we? I also think that even though my issues with self-esteem have a very obvious cause and effect, trauma in childhood leading to low self-esteem in adulthood, to assume that it’s only people who have had trauma in their past who will end up with self-esteem issues is, I think, a fallacy. Just being alive and living every day can do that. If anything, trauma in adulthood, I’ve come to think, may be a blessing in disguise. Just, like, an incredibly convincing Sherlock Holmesian level disguise.
When we’re a kid, our opinion of ourselves and how we should be is dictated by the influences around us. Quite often shit goes wrong with this programming. Trauma as kid can lead to some unhealthy programming, cognitive dissonance, a lack of self, and a difficulty defining boundaries (which is, of course, only one potential route out of a million types of dysfunction) Now, here’s the relevant bit, the shit that happens to you as a kid – NOT your fault. The problem is, as a kid, living in a world surrounded by various authorities trying to manage you, you can end up thinking that it IS your fault, on some deeply fundamental level. Because knowing something intellectually is not the same as believing in it emotionally, it’s just not. So, how do you get from A to B in this scenario, how do you make yourself feel the truth rather than just act like you believe it?
Well, in my case, I didn’t, I just kept going. I think there are two behavioural traits that we, as humans, are really good at, and these are denial and pride. We’re super good at those, trust me. But if you’re really lucky, you will have people around who start to reflect your value, and if you have faith in them, by proxy you’ll start to see validity in what they are trying to show you. Because we all have value lovelies, that’s the frigging point. But even that is probably not enough in and of itself to challenge your programming, although it’s an important start.
The journey that I’ve been on (and I presume will keep being on until the day I die because I don’t expect to be the same person next week as I am now and I know that I’m not the same person now that I was last week) started nearly 5 years ago, with the death of my gran and a new job. In and of themselves, those things didn’t seem like catalysts, but given what happened next, I understand now that they were.
I made a lot of progress in those initial two years, but something was still fundamentally not connecting and I had no idea how to change it by staying in the status quo. I had no goddamn concept of what to expect when I left the UK. I didn’t anticipate that what was going to happen next would change me, because I wasn’t buying into that hippy ideal of ‘finding myself’. But clichés are clichés for a reason I guess, and they will find you, even if you do try to lie down and hide until they go away.
It’s also worth noting here that perspective is a funny thing. So I know that from the outside, living in Vietnam and living in New Zealand could seem like some kind of awesome dream scenario. But you know what the truth is, or at least, I’ve been trying to tell you often enough.
The truth is this: Vietnam was exciting, wonderful, amazing, thrilling, and endlessly interesting. But it was also terrifying, dangerous, heart breaking and the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced, day in and day out. For many, many reasons, some of which are way too personal to share. I mean, seriously guys, my hair fell out, I had a severe autoimmune response, I lost weight in an unhealthy and dramatic manner and above all of that I never, ever, ever felt safe. Not from the moment I was first mugged until the day I left. But what I learned, through teaching and just living in that culture, being utterly immersed in it, was this – human life has only the value we put upon it. In a world where people devalued themselves and everyone around them all the time, I understood how painful it was to be a part of that cycle. Of course someone can hurt you if they have no faith in their own value, because it all becomes meaningless, and that’s a dark place to be. And yet, in living it, I realised that the darkness around me wasn’t nearly as bad as the darkness in my own head. That however badly I was treated on the outside, it didn’t compare to how badly I was treating myself internally.
Of course I didn’t learn that at the time, oh no, what I did was survive. Having something external to push against I found a way to live that was me, and even though it was hard to be me sometimes, being me was the thing that got me through all of it. Now, at the time, you don’t even see the value of what you’re experiencing and dealing with, because you’re too close to it, but all of that time spent pushing yourself past what you feel are your limits, is actually setting up something very important for the next step. Now, I don’t care if you haven’t even been abroad for a week, the travel aspect is not the relevant bit. By now you’ve all been through some major life changes, be it moving to a new town or having a child or dealing with serious illness or the loss of a loved one, whatever it was, it was hard and important and you dealt with it. You pushed yourself beyond what you thought you could, you found resources and confidence and power that you didn't know you had. I know you did, because you’re awesome.
Now what this does is, when the time comes for you to return to the usual rhetoric of ‘yeah but you’re too blahdiblah, or you’re not good at rhubarb-rhubarb or you should feel bad about yourself for nonsense-nonsense’ you find that a different voice is pulling apart that construct of your reality. The very things you use to put yourself down now have counter arguments. So, for me it goes something like this – ah, I’m not confident enough to do this – and that voice goes, er, dumbass, have you already forgotten that you got to a point where you wouldn’t bat an eye about being alone in the middle of Saigon at night, that you didn’t think twice about a new destination or a new scenario or a new conflict, you just jumped in? Or when I want to tell myself that I don’t have the courage to deal with something, the voice says, do you remember walking back out onto the street where you were attacked on the following morning, alone, frigging terrified and shaking but still putting one foot in front of the other because you had to? It’s not as easy to believe your own self-loathing bullshit if you’ve consistently demonstrated that much of it is just that, bullshit.
So when the time comes in your adult life where you have to deal with another difficult situation, what do you do? Well, this depends on a few things. Are you awake to who you are? I mean all of it, the good, the bad, the ugly and the awesome, do you understand your narrative and also understand that it is just that – a narrative? The initial response is probably going to be subconscious unless you’re some super evolved Guru, which is, you go into shock. Do you remember those two character traits I identified earlier, pride and denial? Those bastards are incredibly strong, they are life defining if you let them be, so how do you deal with trauma in a new way? How do you avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? Because here’s the difference – you ain’t a kid no more. There isn’t, or there shouldn’t be, at this point, anybody telling you who you are, how you should feel and what you should be. So what happens this time isn’t about deferring to others, that’s not how you’re going to fix this, you have to go inside.
But how do you get into your head if you’ve spent the majority of your life trying to get out of it? I know for me I’ve put other people’s priorities and feelings front and centre, and it’s only when I’ve been slapped in the face with some major wake up calls that I started to truly analyse this course of action and evaluate where it’s come from and why it might be faulty.
This is where I come back to the steps that I’ve followed to get to the point I’m at now, which is still not the place I want to be, just further along the road. And, let me clear about this, these were steps that I didn’t even know I was taking for the first 18 months of being abroad. The whole ‘self-improvement’ thing was a total accident really. So if I had to break down the steps it took to get back to me, it started with a jump into the complete unknown, that’s why my advice as a starting point to people has been that – make the decision and then find a way to deal with the consequences. That last sentence I’m going to come back to, so bear with me on this.
Next, feel what you feel. I mean completely and only that. This doesn’t mean react to everything you feel or take action always based on your emotions, but do allow yourself to feel them, without judgement or scrutiny. Imagine if it was your friend coming to you with your situation, how would you speak to them? Chances are you would be supportive, even if within that situation your friend had messed up, how often do people start out with the intention of fucking up? Pretty much never.
This one I was going to class as being a me-specific thing but I actually believe that it’s not based on about a billion conversations I’ve had with people on how they feel about perceived external judgement and impact– separate your emotions from those of the people around you. Have consideration, have empathy, have a sense of what is equitable, but don’t let that person’s emotional state dictate yours. This is super hard when you love someone, but I mean it, if there’s not a core of you that can be okay even with crazy shit going on around you, then you’re not going to be able to deal with it, you’re going to have a break down. By you, I mean me, clearly, but I’m going to keep playing fast and loose with the pronouns because this is something between a blog for you and head tidy for me (as usual).
Get support. Speak to people about where you’re at and how you’re feeling. Normalise your perception and experience of life, this super helps with denial and cognitive dissonance. Not overnight, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.
Stop assuming that your experience of life is so much worse than other people’s. It’s really not. Every single bit is relative to the individual and it’s not comparable. Don’t feel smug when you’re ahead, don’t feel defeated when you’re behind, this is a process and that wheel will just keep turning. This too shall pass. You might end up getting depressed, and I finally get what a horrible headspace this is to be in, and if you’re at that point, these words will flow off you like water off a duck’s back because you’re not in the right place to hear them. If that is the case, go back to the step above – get support, speak out, the words you use to berate yourself will eventually lose their power if you keep speaking them out loud.
Do something for you, just you. I thought loving people was something I could just keep doing endlessly, but eventually, if you’re not loving yourself, at some point, that well of love starts to dry up and you get strung out, because you’re not giving yourself that same care and attention. So, do something when you can, and when you feel you need to, that’s just for you. It doesn’t matter really what that is, buy yourself something pretty or fun, watch or read something that only you want to, go for a walk, a run, a bike ride, eat the goddamn doughnut, whatever, as long as the end result of that activity is you feeling better, even if it’s just for a few moments. Here’s the thing, loving other people does not mean they will love you, love is not something that you are ever due from anybody else. Having love or not is not going to make you a better or a worse person, as long as you stop putting the same importance on it. You don’t need someone else to love you, but you do need you to love you. That last bit is really important, someone else is never going to complete you. You’re going to complete you, you awesome, kickass, human, you.
Trust your gut. This last one, Jesus Fucking Christ, has become so relevant to me recently. Your gut is you, basically, it’s the culmination of all that you are crying out to be heard. It’s there to guide you and inform you, don’t ignore it. Don’t rationalise those feelings away, don’t let someone talk you out of instinctual response to a situation. You know exactly what I’m talking about, because I guarantee every time you have ignored it, it’s come back to bite you on the ass, hasn’t it? Your gut has your back bro, so do all you can to listen to that voice and let it inform your actions where possible.
So all of this is fabulous darling, just, like sooooo meaningful, yah, yah… and now here’s the rub. I know all of the above and a lot more besides, but feeling it enough to move forward, now that’s a different story entirely. Nobody can tell me anything more about my particular set of circumstances that I don’t already know. So how do I deal with it? How do I live up to my own preaching sermon on how we could make ourselves happier?
When you’re not happy, when you’re not being you, you find spaces in which to be safe. One of the first things I was ever taught was this: to be safe, I need to have concern for the people around me above myself. Not as well as myself, above. But when I look closely at that construct, I realise that the safety isn’t really there. It’s that same flipping metaphor that I love using from Labyrinth, when Sarah’s in her room and everything seems like it’s real and comforting but actually she’s still in the dump, surrounded by rubbish, the safety is an illusion. So how do I get out of the construct and into reality?
If you remember, I’ve already answered my own question.
‘Make the decision and then find a way to deal with the consequences.’
Maybe it’s finally time to take some of my own advice.