You know those moments when you gaze longingly out of the office window, imagining somewhere with no pressing deadlines, demanding bosses or irritating colleagues? Imagining a deserted cove with turquoise waves lapping a pebbled shore, or a sun-dappled forest immersed in the gentle lilt of birdsong? It’s the alternative reality in which you are the most serene, trouble-free and liberated version of yourself. In those moments we are convinced of what a different person we’d be if only we could escape.
Last year I had the opportunity to do exactly that in the form of an extended trip in a motorhome around Europe. It has entailed cohabiting in a 5x2m moving box with my partner, a dog, a cat and a goldfish, but that’s a whole other blog! In every other way, I well and truly escaped all those troublesome burdens and expectations. Except there was a catch: I brought myself with me. Luckily, as someone who has worked in the field of personal and professional development for many years, and who in fact promotes the importance of understanding oneself as well as one’s context, I was prepared. Or so I thought…
This blog is a short collection of personal musings about what I brought with me and what I’ve learned. Although personal, I hope something may resonate with you.
- I thought that once I ‘got away from it all’ all I had to do was relax. I soon realised that something else was going on. Rather than slowing down, my brain and body was recalibrating by finding problems either in my new environment, or inside my head, to match the internal stress levels that I was used to. My stress was like a vast juggernaut that wasn’t going to be halted quickly or easily. This also had an effect on my body and reminded me of that well-known phenomenon of getting a cold just as a long-anticipated holiday starts. I am unsure whether I was generating problems to match my state, or that when given space there were other things, unconscious and long suppressed, that were waiting and surfaced as soon as there was processing space. It has been humbling to recognise how much more than simply stopping or slowing down is needed if I am to practice true self-care.
- For several months I relied primarily on social media in order to stay ‘connected’ with others. It was quick and easy, I could read about what others were up to and post updates, with photos, for everyone to see. Whilst a great way to share at one level, it took quite a while for me to notice that I was starving myself of actual connection. My friends weren’t getting in touch, which hurt. When I checked this out, it was because they too had been substituting my updates for real connection and thought that they knew how I was doing. A few amusing updates and some photos told only a tiny fraction of the real story. Now, I still post photos, but I no longer look at my ‘newsfeed’ to find out what’s going on for my friends. Instead, I ask them and I have been delighted to discover that they generally ask me back!
- Having looked at how I was connecting with others I became more aware of how I was connecting with myself. It turned out that whilst sitting on that much dreamed of beach, I felt pretty much the same as at home. I was immersing myself in the past and future, via the worlds of ‘all the times I’ve messed up’, ‘I think I might have made the wrong life choices’ and ‘I’d better figure out what to do with the whole rest of my life once this trip is over’. There’s an obvious connection here with meditation and mindfulness. Since the harsh realisation that after transporting myself to my imagined paradise there was still more work to do, I have been learning how to better connect with the present. I have also become more aware of the difference between being alone and being lonely. I have been surprised to discover that often it has far more to do with how I am, or am not, connecting with myself than with anyone else. It is not that I don’t need other people, but rather that I used to grab blindly for whoever I could reach when I felt lonely. Now I’m taking time first to check which part of myself I may have been ignoring. It works more often than not, and frees me up to connect with others on a ‘want’ rather than a ‘need’ basis.
- Very little of this trip had been structured. Forward planning has been largely impossible, mostly beyond even the following day. As an adventure seeker I have always hated routine and structure. It has been interesting to discover that I do have a tipping point, at which I start scrambling to create structure for myself internally. Equally interesting (although I’m fairly sure my partner would choose a different word) is how and when I have found myself doing this.
- Finally, I have discovered that I don’t miss the things I thought I would. As someone who likes (and needed) a lot of stimulation, I thought I’d miss being busy (in terms of pace), the social life of the city, the status afforded by exciting work (yes, like many, my personal identity was getting tangled up with what I do for a living!). Instead I realised I was missing music, meaningful one-to-one conversations with a variety of people and the company of women.
To help you reflect on how my personal experiences and thoughts may be helpful to you, here are a few questions for you to use as prompts
- When you find yourself with (or create) some space where an external pressure used to be, what fills that space if you don’t make a conscious choice about it?
- When you are not connecting with other people/tasks/responsibilities, how do you habitually connect with yourself? Or, how do you avoid connecting with yourself (e.g. via social media, alcohol or any other compulsive behaviour)? What are you keeping at bay with these distractions?
- If you’re going to miss the present, is it because you’re heading to the past or the future? Or another parallel version of reality in your imagination? How does this serve you and how might it be holding you back?
- Do you feel more lonely when alone or in certain contexts/company? How good a friend are you to yourself when you have only yourself to listen to?
- What could help you to ‘come down’ from your habitual stress levels gently and in a realistic time frame?
‘Getting away from it all’ feels very seductive because we so badly want to believe that it’s possible to escape our hassles and problems. Of course we can get away from those specific to our context, but what we are left with are all the ingenious tricks we’ve created for getting in our own way.
As a final note, it is interesting that most mainstream workplace wellbeing models focus exclusively on the context, which of course is an essential element (see for example https://www.robertsoncooper.com/6-essentials-of-workplace-wellbeing).
It is more clear to me now than ever before, however, that any wellbeing model is incomplete if it does not give equal weight to self-awareness and personal development, at all levels within an organisation.
So, remember that whatever you think you could and would escape from given the chance, it will still be the case that “wherever you go, there you are” (Confucius).