Learning to let the mask slip

Photo by Tomáš Petz on Unsplash

I’ve regularly had conversations where I’ve noticed I was different.

It’s been hard to put words to this, and whenever I’ve talked about being different to other people they have always tried to reassure me – we are all different in some way, right?

I never thought of myself as demonstrating signs of autism. My understanding was that autism were for those with very exaggerated traits. Even when I saw some resonance with certain common behaviours, I thought of autistic people as showing little regard to emotion, whereas I knew myself as highly emotional and sensitive.

Yet I read an article which highlighted that many traits of autism vary a lot – non-stereotypical autism shows up as being highly empathetic and sensitive, as well as being existential or spiritual beings. These signs of non-stereotypical behaviours are more common for women, ethnic minority and queer/gender non-confirming folk too.

So am I Autistic? Most probably.

The signs fit closely, and several online tests showed a high probability. One even came out that I had a 86% chance of being neuroatypique/autistic. This week, I went on to read a book on Autism. I did find that a lot of what was written in the book resonated deeply with me, including particular stories of Autistic people who described many things, including having difficulty making friends and finding certain social etiquette like small talk rather pointless.

The funny thing is that even my response in of itself is quite an obvious indicator of autism. I only started down this rabbit hole this on Sunday, after which I took multiple tests and I ended up reading a whole 300 page book within three days. This morning I read another few chapters of another book on it too. This is what could be described as a hyper fixation, a sign of Autism. Whilst I thought this was normal, it turns out most people don’t have an insatiable desire to consume information like I do.

Whilst self-diagnosis has some obvious potential dangers, in this space it is pretty important. Most people who get diagnosed with Autism or related disabilities only learn of them through contact with other people with such disabilities.

For those feeling like I may be jumping the gun here, there is a difference between watching a 60 second Tik Tok video compared to doing proper research including talking to people with the condition, researching articles, following forum threads and reading a whole book too.

Autistic people also talk about how if you think you are Autistic, you probably are. This is especially important to note considering how hard and potentially expensive getting an official diagnosis generally is. There are loads of people who are evidently neurodivergent but will never get tested because of lack of access.

There’s a lot for me to process with this new-found information, which is incredibly tiring mentally. Suddenly all the moments in my life have a new lens – my brain is reviewing thousands of moments. There were many times I found it difficult to understand what was expected of me. There were other times where I felt excluded or how challenging it was to make friends (no matter how hard I tried).

Yet my overriding feeling is one of relief. Whether it be autism or something related, it explains a whole lot. The way I process information is very different to most people. The difficulty of connecting with people isn’t just in my head, and I’m now building the vocabulary to both understand and explain it.

The reason I had no obvious idea of being Autistic was that I’ve become extremely proficient at masking my differences. Many adults have simply learnt to mask their behaviours to fit into the rigid, neurotypical world we live in. There are also many people like me who had no idea, and thought that whatever they were doing was just how everyone lived.

My whole career is riddled with instances of me downplaying my own intelligence so that I don’t intimidate or frighten the people around me. In my social life, I’ve deeply studied and practiced social cues to get better at socialising as a response to finding it difficult to connect with people.

I am relieved to understand why my methods aren’t really bringing me the reuslts I want. No matter how hard I try, I’m not going to find success by hiding my weird quirks. Even with all my practice on socialising, there is still an undercurrent of inauthenticity if it is just to hide my true nature. Meanwhile, diminishing my own intelligence only leaves me feeling frustrated and undervalued.

I’m still in the midst of digesting a lot of new information, so it will be a tiring journey to really understand what it means. Nonetheless, I feel a lot more grateful for understanding more about myself.

Living life in our own fantasy world

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This week I’ve been spending a lot of time in the world of fantasy. I’ve been binge watching Japanese anime, mixed up with RPG video games. I had forgotten the beauty of getting engrossed in a whole different, fantastical dimension.

Getting into series’ and playing games has been something I’ve found pretty tough in the last few years, especially so in the last month or two. This is in stark contrast of when I was a teenager, where I would get through so many fantasy novels. I remember staying up reading one night for so long that it actually was daylight outside (and I realised I better go sleep!)

But as an adult, the world of ‘fiction’ lost its appeal. In fact, I think I’ve ended up becoming quite condescending and judgemental about it. Whilst this sense of escapism might be nice when you don’t have responsibilities, what about as an adult with a job? I didn’t really understand the point of it all, because it didn’t materially help me in any way.

So the information I now consume has shifted towards things that are more ‘serious’. Real world news, politics. Non-fiction and self-development books. Important, hard hitting stuff, rather than namby pamby worlds filled with goblins and elves.

This week was the point that I realised that somewhere along the way I had lost my joy for fantasy. In fact, anything not based in reality felt like wasted effort – I’ve stopped watching films or even TV series. I had subconsciously built a suspicion of all these things as not being a valuable use of time.

Sometimes the remedy to a challenge is to plunge yourself into the deep end. And there’s no better deep end of getting into fantasy than watching some Japanese anime. Yet perhaps it’s also what I needed – watching a reality-TV show, whilst sometimes enjoyable, would be like taking a weak dose of medicine. I can now see with the benefit of hindsight that those have not been satiating my intense curiosity and desire to dream.

It’s been really interesting to observe the psychological effect too – watching a positive story unfold has left me feeling the most hopeful I’ve been in probably months. My sense of my own abilities and belief in myself also increased too. When we see people succeeding – whether real or not – our emotions also follow with them.

What I’ve learnt in the last few years of personal development is that to some extents, we are all living our own fantasy. There may be things that exist that are real, but the way we interpret them colours our experience of the whole world. But we often get caught up in the worries and concerns, so we inadvertendly paint our lives as dark and difficult, rather than bright and beautiful.

I feel that there is a way in which we can live our lives where everything is our own fantastical creation. We can choose the beauty and vivid colours, even if they may not necessarily be there ‘in reality’.

When I had this thought, I wondered whether I was going delusional. Am I convincing myself to be happy in spite of the hard, cold realities of the world? Was this a genius, inspired vision of how to be positive or the moment before the mental breakdown?

Well maybe I am being delusional. But I also have come to the conclusion that I would rather live a happy, somewhat delusional life than a miserable, hyper realist one. So why not indulge myself in dreaming and wonder?

Besides, I also know that I’m far more effective when I’m happy. I’m more positive, pleasant to be around and far more likely to take action. The magic is seeing that I can be a dreamer but also not be in denial of the realities either. I think true madness is losing touch with reality, but a happy delusion is seeing the positives even when things are difficult.

When we can see life as a choice of how we choose to see it, it opens up so many possibilities. Critically, it opens up our abilities to see it in a positive light, even when there may be many factual reasons not to.

If we’re all living in our own fantasy worlds, why not make yours more happy and colourful?

Searching for where we belong in the world

Photo by Amer Mughawish on Unsplash

This weekend, I went to a small group discussion with marginalised people from racialised backgrounds.

It’s really interesting being in these open spaces, delving on complex and emotive topics. I was fascinated by how someone was trying to explain the challenge of finding a group for people like them.

This only becomes more complex when you add in further intersections – for example someone coming from different nationalities, along with a certain ethnic background, also being neurodiverse and identifying as LGBT+ (which was indeed the case for someone in my group). When you are getting this niche, realistically it’s unlikely you will ever meet someone who is like you from a characteristic perspective, even if you tried.

This brought up a conversation more broadly about a sense of belonging. This got me thinking about my own personal experience. It’s something I’ve struggled a lot with.

On the one hand, I recognise that the more I see myself as an outsider the more I create myself to be that – I will act aloof with people, and distance myself. This only makes me seem more of an outsider, both to other people and myself.

On the other hand, I recognise the importance of seeing what is in front of me – there are real differences in my background and the way I live my life which can bring a sense of difference with the people around me.

The interesting part is how I, or anyone else might respond to this. One school of thought is to find refuge by looking for our own groups – where we can truly feel ourselves because we find people similar to us. After all – wouldn’t it be easy to just find a collective where we feel welcome and don’t have to explain ourselves?

Whilst I like this idea in theory, my practical experience is that this doesn’t work as well as it might sound. When I’ve gone into groups which I could call ‘my own’ – whether race or something else – my experience has been mixed.

Sometimes, it is indeed to have someone to connect with. But when the main topic of conversation is a connection due to race, disability, LGBT+ etc. it can become hard to go beyond a fairly superficial conversation. I found myself in conversation with people that actually I had nothing really else in common with, without any real reason to actually speak with them.

Sometimes, we can forget that connecting with people goes beyond a single characteristic – it’s about creating a mutual bond. A common interest or background can help, but it’s not necessarily all that important. We meet people by circumstance, but we keep in touch with them through a sense of care and connection.

Spaces with people we think we’d connect with can actually be far less inclusive than they sound. I’ve been to social events with people from a similar marginalised group. I thought I would find it easy to connect with them, instead I actually found the whole experience actually quite draining.

The sad reality is that many marginalised spaces can have a lot of hurt and pain, meaning people are not actually all that emotionally available to connect. I found myself being around people who were pretty negative, and by the end of the event I actually was looking forward to being away from them.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to discern people based upon their energy and feel. It’s a much more intuitive thing than we can sometimes explain, particularly when we look at it from a purely logical perspective. That’s not to say that it’s not helpful to go into spaces where we’re likely to meet people we have things in common with. But it is also to say that basing connection on a single factor can be ineffective.

So where do we find this sense of ‘belonging’?

Like many philosophical answers, I find myself returning to the same answer: starting from within.

Belonging starts from us feeling like we belong ourselves. If we feel like we belong, we no longer have this need to find a space where we explicitly ‘belong’. Conversely, it is the sense that we do not belong which creates this need to find belonging. And so we go searching for it from an external source.

The first step is to believe that we belong in the world for ourselves. Yet I also admit that I find this an extremely tough thing to do, and many reasons that we can be made to not feel that way. I also admit that I’m really struggling with this at the moment.

Yet I also don’t think that makes this any less true, no matter what life throws at us.

It might be difficult, but I think we can choose to see that we are enough, that we belong, and that we are content.

Doing so can completely change the way we experience life. But it starts from within.

Curbing the need for social media dopamine hits

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Yesterday, I used my phone so much that my thumb started hurting. Not that it stopped me, I simply switched hands so I could continue tapping away.

But if it’s getting to the point that holding a phone is starting to hurt, that’s probably a as obvious a warning sign as any.

This prompted me to do a quick stocktake of the way I’m using my phone. In particular, I looked at all the ways I’m connected. The numbers aren’t particularly pretty. I’m on four different social media apps which I check throughout the day. If I’m honest, I’m scared to know the actual number of times I open each app, because I’m sure it’s probably over 20-30 times in a day.

On top of that, there are at least five additional apps (e.g. WhatsApp / Telegram, but also Discord and Slack + other apps with in-built messaging). Through these I receive message notifications as well. This is without including checking my emails, and before actually considering that I also have work emails and MS Teams notifications as well. How many methods do I need to be notified about something?

Whilst for most people, the feeling of overwhelm would have hit by now – for me I have learnt an efficient system to keep on top of my messages, essentially by replying quickly so that I respond to people in good time. This has certainly helped my workflow with emails, and I’ve simply taken the principle to my messaging as well. And whilst this has been effective, it has also made me a message responding machine with an insatiable appetite for more stimulation.

Connecting with people can be very fun, and I’ve been doing it more so than ever. But I’ve been finding that this thirst only gets stronger the more I consume. So when I stop getting messages, my body gives me a feeling of anxiety. This is the definition of an addiction.

Like any addiction, the constant need for a new hit can be incredibly hard to resist. I did a short experiment of turning my phone off to see how I would feel – turns out not great: it really put into perspective how many times I reach for my phone without really thinking about it.

This is having a wider impact on my life. I feel more tired in my body, most likely because I’m not resting as well as I could have. My brain is far less clear and more reactionary than it otherwise would be. It’s hard to have peaceful thoughts in this state.

I’ve also been finding it extremely challenging to not get bored recently. I feel the physical pain of anxiety when I do not have a replacement for the stimulation I get. This means that even doing genuinely fun things like playing on my Playstation can feel boring because the dopamine hits aren’t as intense as receiving messages from someone.

So like many people in the modern age, it’s a moment to reevaluate my connection usage. I think it’s also about being honest with myself that going cold turkey – i.e. a complete disconnect – will probably be too intense for me at the beginning, especially if there’s not another thing to stimulate me in its place.

Small habits can really make a difference, and I can even tell the difference between connecting to the internet on my laptop compared to my phone. Whilst using my laptop has a certain level of intentionality, my phone is so easy to use, that it is almost dangerously so. I can simply pick it up whenever I want, and do so without thinking. Considering I use it for so many different functions too, it can mean that the behaviour for checking on notifications and social media can become automatic even when I wasn’t meaning to.

This is despite me generally keeping my phone on silent & reduced notifications – I have no idea how anyone can live with actual regular messaging alerts. It’s the first thing I turned off when I got a new phone!

Social media is probably the most apt example of modern day self-discipline training. Whilst I respect certain people for steering clear of it all together, I think there are many benefits that I enjoy in my life with it. Yet it is also addictive, so it is important to keep it in check.

Properly managing connection can leave you feeling better, and for many people I know it would actually mean that they are more responsive too. Many people check their messages when they are too tired to actually respond, which actually leads to more disconnection.

So if you’re reading this, I invite you to take this as a prompt to examine your own social media and messaging uses.

There’s nothing revolutionary in what I’m saying. You know it. I know it. But it’s probably time to have a look at it nonetheless.

Overcoming the guilt of standing up for yourself

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Over the last few weeks, I’ve been speaking quite a lot around the subject of raising issues to the people around me.

I actually had something in my personal life – I felt uncomfortable with something around a social gathering. But I also felt very uncomfortable around causing a fuss for other people.

In the end I raised the issue. Despite finding a solution, I ended up feeling guilty and a feeling that I was too delicate and difficult. Even though it was important for me to speak up for myself, I still feel extremely awkward for having done so.

The truth is that it’s never really comfortable to raise an issue. At best, it is instinctive, and so happens without needing to overthink it. Whilst blowing up based upon emotions is not helpful, If this is done in an emotionally controlled way, it can be a good way to get things off the chest without letting them ruminate. It’s why giving space for issues to be raised as they come up can save a lot of time and stress for all involved.

Otherwise, the whole experience can be laborious. We can get so caught up in the question of whether we are making too much of a fuss about things. I’ve seen it time and time again where people have minimised their own feelings because they fear coming across as too difficult, loud or unreasonable. This is often followed by finding justifications for why they should maybe instead just accept the situation. The brain can end up going in overdrive finding a whole plethora of extenuating circumstances as to why we may be overreacting.

Through this process, we learn to invalidate our own feelings. We end up convincing ourselves that the issue is that not that big of a deal. We end up losing touch with how we really feel about things, and end up instead following others opinion of what we should think and feel. This can erode our connection with ourselves and our moral compass, which will likely have negative effects across all aspects of our life.

The complex part of raising an issue is that we cannot control how other people are going to react to it. Chances are that if you are with someone who you feel would be receptive, this whole subject is far less of a challenge (it’s why making ourselves open to challenge is so important). But the real difficulty comes when we are speaking with someone that we do not expect to take it particularly well. There are certainly ways that we can raise issues in a constructive, non-confrontational way. Yet I’ve also seen people ruminate so much on this that the fear only increases as to ‘find the right time’, meaning that they end up putting off doing what they need to say.

The next step is the importance of staying the course. This has been a real challenge for me – I often feel guilty for causing a fuss, and I’ve even deleted messages I sent to people because I felt they were maybe too strong, toned them down and apologised before they even heard what I wanted to say. The problem with this is that it is self-defeating. I undermined my own message and ended up being the bad guy for having the issue in the first place. I set the narrative as me overreacting, when in reality I was just reacting.

I’ve found that when we want to take a stand, it is important to do so with a level of conviction. If we wilt at the first sign of anyone pushing back, the whole exercise ends up being even more painful. We compromise out of social pressure or anxiety. At the same time, people will subconsciously learn to never take your concerns seriously.

People are not usually used to having someone taking such strong stands either. I’ve been described as stubborn for sticking to my guns in the past. This is a challenging one, because an accusation of being stubborn can poke us to compromise because we want to demonstrate that we are not. This is where self-belief really comes in; I’ve learnt to acknowledge myself and my openness to see this is not the case, meaning I don’t need to respond to the accusation.

It’s important to remember that there is a clear difference between being stubborn because you refuse to be wrong compared to having conviction where you have considered all the information and are still sticking the course.

If you’ve been reading my article over the last few weeks you’ve probably seen me talk about having a clearer connection to our feelings. This article follows a similar theme. I believe that many of the moral woes come from an avoidance of raising our voice when we need to. By learning to ignore our feelings, we learn to ignore our conscience.

I think the world would be a better place if people raised issues more often. It would mean we sort them, rather than sweeping them under the carpet.

So if you’re considering how to deal with a situation where you raise an issue, my suggestion would be this: be guided by the emotional feelings that you have, but do not let them control you. If you face a choice of whether to raise something serious, make sure you have the conviction to follow it through, rather than backtracking at the first sign of push back. And be willing to accept that you may not get what you want, as ultimately the decision may not be in your control.

Standing up for yourself may be very uncomfortable, but your conscience will thank you for it. And the world will probably be better off for it too.

Navigating the moral dilemma of buying new things

Photo by Christopher Gower on Unsplash

I finally bought a new phone. This was after five years since purchasing the last one.

I previously had a decent android which worked well. The battery started to fail me, but I got that replaced last year. When I did that, It actually felt like a new phone.

But by late last year it started to fail. Some internal overheating error meant it stopped charging at all. I basically had a phone that I could only use if it was plugged in. The ‘mobile’ part of mobile phone was lost.

I ended up borrowing my mum’s old phone to keep me going. It was a phone that was a few years old. It was living in an old drawer anyway.

The issue once again was the battery. Even when I started using it, it would die when it got to about 30 percent battery, sometimes very rapidly and without warning. I had one moment where I was following google maps to a friends house, only for it to dramatically die without warning. I got lucky and managed to find their front door by some old visual memory.

This only got worse, the battery had degraded so badly it would die almost instantaneously. The last time I used it on Monday, it hit 97% and died. I now own two phones that only work when plugged in.

So this week was time I finally upgraded. Yet, I had a moral quandary here. After all, the constant purchasing of new phones is one of the most obvious examples of needless materialistic waste. New phones rarely have much better features anyway.

I could have bought a second hand phone, or something more socially conscious like a Fairphone. It probably would have fit a nice, conscientious looking mould. But honestly, I didn’t want to. I am one of the heaviest users of a mobile phone that I know, and I much preferred getting a new, higher spec one which will last me a long time.

I know many people who find this question challenging, particularly who work or care deeply around environmental issues. I felt a tinge of guilt for wanting something flashy and new, especially when I literally work on circular economy policy. Yet I also knew that I would use it and it was what I really wanted. I think it would have been worse to not purchase it out of self guilt.

So how do we square this conflict of views?

Well, firstly, I think it’s okay to want things. Wanting and using is part of our natural behaviours as humans. I don’t see much value in chastising ourselves for this.

That said, I believe that it is important that we appreciate the items we consume. It may sound somewhat weird to say it, but one of my most prized possessions is my TV. I love the quality of it, and the graphics when playing games on my Playstation brings me a real sense of joy.

I find this sort of consumerism different to items that we buy but then do not use. If I am genuinely appreciating the materials, I think it is worth it.

Moreover, I’ve seen so many people working in the environmental space get into an existential angst around basic consumption that it makes them miserable. Whilst its great to be conscientious, we must not forget that life is to be enjoyed. If we are going to have some marked impact on the environment through the fact that we exist, we might as well make our existence a joyous and fulfilled one.

On my quest for a new phone, one thing that I did not expect was how underwhelmed I felt when it actually came. It was so quick to setup and transfer my data that I barely had time to notice it happening.

I reflect that with tech upgrades being so easy now, some of the magic and delayed gratification has gone away. If I were to buy a new laptop, I could probably have it setup within hours. The tech is so good that it could sync up all my applications and settings pretty much instantly. This feels very far away to the magic of when I bought my first laptop, where I had to set everything up, along with seeing what wallpaper I wanted to put on.

I think we would benefit from appreciating our purchases more fully. A key element of this is having that delayed gratification, as well as focused appreciation in what we have bought.

Whilst I do not want to turn back the clock on the heightened level of convenience we now have in the world, there is a space for us to build our own rituals to genuinely enjoy the new creations in our hands.

If we took a moment to genuinely consider how much effort went into making the things we own, I think we would live our lives in a far higher state of gratitude.

How we can live life more emotionally

Emotional reactions aren’t exactly hard to find. Online, the world can feel very polarised, so it can be a challenge to keep a cool head when discussing divisive topics – be that climate, diversity, war or anything else.

For many of us, we’ve been taught the value of avoiding emotional reactions. It’s important for us to be able to listen to others without reacting straight away. Yet whilst we are better off not reacting to the first emotion that we have, I also feel we have gone too far the other way.

We have inadvertendly idealised the idea of being cool, calm and collected over the ability to express genuine feelings. Indeed, the idea of expressing how you feel is still seen as a risk in a corporate workplace, for fear of being called unprofessional.

Growing up in a mix of UK and Bangladeshi culture, I learnt to keep emotions in check. Whilst the British side taught me the value of the ‘stiff upper lip’ to avoid causing a scene (particularly in public), the Bangladeshi culture focussed on the need for respect and humility.

Whilst there are definite positives to these values, they also contribute to the lack of balance within people in society. For males, expressing emotions is something that is neither expected nor often wanted. It is no wonder that we see so many men in the world unable to share how they were genuinely feeling.

For women, this can be a challenge for being seen as ‘too emotional’, particularly in a workplace setting. For everyone else on the gender spectrum, expressing emotion can be tricky: there are less obvious examples to follow, whilst other people’s reactions can also be negative when these go against the expected gender norms.

In last week’s article, I talked about how I was a far more emotional and sensitive creature than I had previously realised. This week for me was about tying this realisation with the way I act on a day-to-day basis.

I’ve realised how the usual response to something that genuinely upsets me is to push down the emotions. When someone has done something that has hurt me, I jump to their perspective. I try and be understanding without properly understanding how I am feeling. My trained, instinctive response is often to play down a situation, only for my upset or anger to surface quickly after. I would then feel unable to express these feelings as I had already said things were fine.

So I’ve been looking to express myself more closely with how I’ve been feeling. This has been quite a big shift, and honestly, probably not a popular one. Internally, I’m letting go of a filtering system which put me closer to a cool, calm and collected response. It’s also made me realise how much I self-censor: as someone who already has the image of being outspoken, I’ve been unconsciously tuning out a lot of my ideas for fear of being too radical.

The reality, though, is that I am radical. I’ve seen it time and time again that the way my mind thinks is very different to the people around me. It’s taken some time, but I’ve also learnt to see this as a gift – the world is facing so many challenges it needs the space for more radical thinking. I shouldn’t be toning down my ideas in a space where creative thinking is desperately needed.

At the same time, this has only increased my feelings of being an outsider. Whilst I enjoy the uniqueness of my life most of the time, I often wish my life was a little less unique and I found it easier to connect with others. But I also know that this is my life path, and any attempt to pretend otherwise would only lead me to dimming my own light and ultimately being unsatisfied.

I honestly don’t know whether what I am doing is good life advice for others. I think (or perhaps hope) that better emotional expression leads to a more fulfilling life. But I also am still in fear of the repercussions. Will this be ultimately damaging for my friendships, career and everything else?

In the short term, it might just be. But hopefully in the longer term it will lead to better things.

Don’t cry for me Argentina – trip reflections

Lago Falkner, on the Route of the Seven Lakes, Patagonia

I’m on my last leg of Argentina. In fact, I’m currently writing this article thousands of miles in the sky, on my way back to Europe. This week I went to Bariloche, Patagonia. I returned to Buenos Aires for one night before returning back to Brussels (with an exotic layover in Frankfurt).

Patagonia is breathtaking. I wasn’t expecting to see such a wide array of beautiful landscapes in such a small space of time. I expected Patagonia would be beautiful, but I didn’t think there would be so much of it. I became overwhelmed rather quickly. The views were incredible, but there are only so many stunning scenes you can take in within a day before it becomes exhausting.

Otherwise, my trip to Argentina has been weird. It had a mix of solo travel, spending time with some family (brothers/cousins) and also travelling with extended/new friends. What has also been travelling with me is a consistent cough, which has been a particular challenge on certain days too.

I’ve not been shy to share that this trip did not come at the greatest time for me. The beginning of the year has brought a pretty intense level of existential questioning. Sometimes this has felt like a real burden – I felt guilty for not enjoying my trip more. And yet, I also realised with hindsight that it is better to get on with life rather than what I would otherwise be doing – staring at my ceiling from my bedroom in Brussels.

I think I’m entering my chaotic era in life. This trip had less planning, more emotional vulnerability and greater amounts of spontaneous fun. Whilst I did go see the tourist sites, I also went out in Buenos Aires to a techno party till 7am, which definitely wasn’t part of the usual itinerary. I also had more of a sense of obligation to be there for my family, which was the primary reason for the trip. I find such things difficult, and this was no exception here.

When I stop to think, it’s actually amazing what I achieved. I booked a full trip a few weeks away, turned up to a brand new country in a different continent and rolled through speaking Spanish from day one with no issues. I often take my skills for granted, and it was only when I was travelling with non-Spanish speakers that I remembered how far I had come with my mastery of language and cross-cultural communication.

In the last few days I noticed something about myself. My urge to conform and connect with local cultures with respect is something that really drives me. On the positive side, this is what has spurred my strengths in understanding others. On the other hand, this can also make me feel very uncomfortable when not doing what I’m supposed to do. I had a sharp pain in my chest when I was travelling with others and I felt like we were not respecting the local customs. I had never connected the dots around my sensitivities with the deep desire to conform within a culture.

I think that deep down, I am someone who really desires harmony and peace. When I go to my core, I am actually the ultimate people pleaser – this has come out really intensely when I’ve gotten close with people.

The painful part of this is that this does not really reflect how many people see me, or indeed how I saw myself for a long time. The nicer words people have used about me are that I am passionate and fight for what I believe in, the less nice words are that I am a troublemaker.

This trip has been a reminder that at my core I am deeply sensitive – for many people probably overly so. So I have learnt to adapt, whether that be to attach myself to more masculine traits of logical thinking whilst also heavily suppressing my emotional side, or learning to be more outspoken as a way to follow my beliefs.

After all, if I was still the quiet, peace loving ethnic minority, I would probably be doing some admin job in the back of an office with half the salary with my skills being wasted. The troublemaker brand is one I’ve reluctantly accepted to make it in a world not built for people like me.

We can travel away from everything except ourselves

My gloriously tidy hostel bed in Iguazú

This article marks two years of writing articles each week consecutively. The last time I missed a week was in January 2022. And it just so happens that I’m writing this one from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I’ve been posting pretty frequently on social media around the different things I’ve been seeing. I didn’t really have a set intention to do so, but I just felt like getting the thoughts out of my head and into the world.

Throughout my posts, I wanted to ensure that I kept a level of grounded realism about travelling. We’ve all seen the exotic lifestyles being portrayed on social media that are far from reality. Instead, I wanted to talk about how I genuinely experienced the parts of my trip.

I’ve been sick pretty much throughout. I’ve generally been fine enough to do what I had planned, but the constant coughing has made it tougher. I also came into this trip with probably the least amount of enthusiasm I’ve ever had for a ‘grand adventure’. I was, and still am, in the midst of some soul searching as we hit 2024.

The untold truth about travelling is that whilst it can be great, amazing, breathtaking, it is still living life. There are exciting moments, and there are boring moments. Nothing illustrated this better to me then when I went to the Iguazú waterfalls and saw amazing things in the morning. By the afternoon I returned to my hostel bed with very little to actually do. I ended up scrolling more on social media than I would have done at home.

The one person we always travel with is ourselves. Many people travel the world to escape their lives, only to find themselves still unhappy 5000 miles away. Travel can do many things, but it won’t fix your happiness. Only you can do that for yourself.

For me, I recognise that I’m having a moment in life where things need time to settle. It’s like a operating software update – until it’s done, I’m a slow-moving loading screen. This would be the case if I was in snowed-under Brussels or travelling across Patagonia. There are no shortcuts in this game.

Fortunately, I have the wisdom to recognise this point. Although there were moments with getting anxious for not ‘enjoying this more’ or getting frustrated with my body for getting sick, I could realise that this was just part of life. I can feel what I’m meant to feel. I don’t need to change anything.

On a positive note, yesterday was the lightest I’ve felt in a long time. Despite still coughing a lot, I felt a sense of floating through life again. I noticed the beauty of the trees. I noticed the smiles of the people around me. I wanted to wave my body with music. I felt a greater sense of inner peace. I think the software update is getting close to completion.

It’s funny that after a period of angst and confusion, there simply comes a point where it just passes. This only happens if we learn to process the emotions without either avoiding them or hanging onto them unduly.

Whatever hardships or challenges we have faced, one day we can wake up and see the beauty of life again.

This too shall pass.

The subtle art of getting on with life

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Life doesn’t stop. Even if we want it to.

I’ve been slowly reawakening to life after the new year. Honestly, it’s felt lethargic and difficult.

Alas, life does not wait for us to feel in tip top condition. For those of us in the EU bubble, the return to work has felt more intense than ever. We’ve hit ‘la rentrée’. People are back in town. Social activities have restarted. Emails are flying around in abundance. The break is officially over.

As humans, many of us are feeling rusty. Indeed, at my local Toastmasters, the overriding feedback was that we all seemed pretty rusty.

This week has been a lesson in practice of getting on with my life despite how I feel. I still feel under a cloud of existential questioning. But I realise that it’s better I go out and do things rather than avoiding them.

This week was intense. I landed straight into a week of grant proposals, reporting deadlines and planning meetings. I came into the office a few days, including a half day HR training on Wednesday and a team planning session with my team on Friday.

One of the (rather unwanted) benefits of a job is that it prompts us into action. When we commit to working, it pushes us to do things, even if I didn’t really feel like it. By the end of the week, I found the interest and passion slowly return.

This principle also shifts towards our personal lives too. This week I had a team social on Tuesday evening, a pole class Wednesday evening and my Toastmasters club meeting on Thursday evening.

These are all things that I wanted to do. After I did them, I felt better for it. But before them, I really didn’t. Part of me was tempted to bail and stay home.

There is a comfort in withdrawing back into the comforts of our homes. Yet I also know that if I were to not do the things I actually want to do, I would have felt worse. Getting back into the activities that we enjoy is an important part of living.

It is also a way to break the cycle of misery. Many of us tend to withdraw when we feel low. Whilst sometimes this can be beneficial – particularly if we are burnt out or need time for ourselves – often this is to our detriment. We end up reinforcing our sense of isolation because we do not feel like going outside.

It’s now Friday night, and I’m sitting in Frankfurt airport waiting for a flight to Buenos Aires for a two week trip. I’ll have a chance to properly disconnect for a few weeks. I’m looking forward to a change of scenery and new stimulation, even if I haven’t really thought about it too much yet!

I’ll still be writing my articles and reflections (often when I travel I actually post more because I feel more creative). So expect my next article including some insights from my travels. It’ll also be a nice way to mark a landmark too – next week I’ll have posted articles for two years without missing a single week.

Embarking on an exciting trip is as good a reminder as any: go ahead and live your life, even if you don’t feel like it right now.