The Lonely Diplomat: on mid-life crises
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
We can spend so much time and effort avoiding those feelings and thoughts of regret, 'what-ifs' and ennui.
We must stop ignoring them and face them.
We need to seize the opportunity to
reflect and then act.
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It's awful feeling like a cliché, and there are so many clichés about mid-life crises: affairs; divorce; lycra; sports cars; quitting jobs to follow passions; unhappiness; loneliness; you get the idea.
Outwardly, it looks like we've got it all together. Our career is on track and we're being thought of as future leadership material. We may be in a great relationship, and we may have a great family. We take wonderful holidays. Our social media feeds glow with amazing photos of good food, friends, sunsets, beaches and beautiful people.
By any external definition, we're successful and enjoying that success.
If we're so successful and are living the life, why do we feel so bereft? Why do we feel so empty inside? Why aren’t we happy? Where is everyone? Why do we feel so alone? Why don't we feel anything?
Did we think that we'd be further along in our careers by now? Did we think that we'd feel happier in our success? Are we disappointed, angry and frustrated that the promise of future health, wealth and happiness we believed all those years ago hasn't materialised yet?
And when did it all become so mundane? When did we lose touch with that young version of ourselves? When did we get so old?
We're only going to get older from now. Looking into your future, we feel dread for the years ahead of us. Somehow, we have to summon the energy to keep on going into a future filled with more of the same: work; the people around us; the monotony of it all.
These thoughts and feelings are an awful realisation, aren't they?
We've got to stop ignoring them, dismissing them or downplaying them. Let's embrace our mid-life crises.
What's the problem?
The realisation that we're miles away from where we thought we wanted to be, or the enjoyment of our successes isn't materialising can leave us feeling dreadful. We can do anything to numb the pain.
Not feeling successful at work? Work harder and longer.
Not happy? Avoid what doesn’t make us happy anymore or try anything to feel happiness.
Feeling the cold hand of ageing and mortality on your shoulder? Exercise like you did in your 20s, or exercise like you're still in your 20s.
Feeling lonely or isolated from those around you? Convince yourself through sheer force of will that you're not [This is what I did, so you're in great company].
Don't know who you are? You're not alone in that awful feeling that you don't recognise yourself.
Reality whacks us around the head as we ask the question: Is this really it? It can all be crushing.
We don't know how to handle it. We numb: We work harder. We buy the sports car. We have the affair. We divorce. We exercise like we’re still 18 years old. We party more. We medicate.
Anything to feel alive again and make the pain go away.
Here’s a fact: You're not alone.
Please, read that sentence again.
For diplomats and those living the diplomatic life
Feelings of a mid-life crisis strikes you where you are, wherever you are. For many of us, this can happen when we are on a diplomatic posting in a foreign country.
We can feel that we simply don’t have time to have a mid-life meltdown. We can feel that we need to always be the diplomat; always representing our country and maintaining the façade of having it all together, all the time. Anything less than having it all together, all the time can feel like we're failing in the competitive organisational culture in our workplaces [I wrote a blog post on this topic in February 2019. Go here to read it].
We can feel that we should have been more senior within our agencies. We should have had a bigger impact on the world than we feel we have made. We should have been home more often. We can feel that we should have been more than we are now. [Remember how I dislike the word 'should'?]
We can also be madly looking around for more opportunities to prove ourselves as being worthy of more in an effort to be where we thought we should be by this stage of our lives. The fear of missing out is real.
We can also feel like we are the only person going through it. We feel that we can be the only person thinking thoughts and feeling feelings. We can be removed from our social support networks when we are at post and be reluctant to open up to those around us.
Perhaps worst of all, we can fear that as this is the life we’ve chosen, any mention of dissatisfaction could be met with accusations of being ungrateful. A complainer. A whinger. We're not resilient enough.
Worse yet, we fear the judgment of others as we endure our own harsh judgment of ourselves.
Still, the urge to make rapid, dramatic changes can be strong. The feelings of dissatisfaction in ourselves, our jobs and our relationships don’t care who you are, what you do or where you are. You can’t make feelings go away through sheer force of your will [I tried that and it really doesn't work]. But we can feel boxed in by our previous decisions. The practicalities of leaving the diplomatic life and quitting your job when living overseas can be overwhelming. The same applies for ending a relationship.
Given these difficulties, we can vacillate between not doing anything and desperately trying everything. We can struggle as our frustration continues to grow.
We know that things must change. But what? And how?
What are we to do?
I love the words said by Rahm Emmanuel (which is an adaptation of a similar quote from Winston Churchill):
“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
Without doubt, the feelings of regret, shame, discomfort and general ennui that a mid-life crisis can dredge up are awful.
Rather than numb, we must get brave and we must feel all these feelings. Our feelings are there to be felt, after all.
This can be scary. Like, really scary. Like falling-alone-into-a-dark-abyss scary. We could have spent years avoiding ourselves. Ignoring those thoughts and dismissing those feelings. That is not a winning strategy, as it never lasts for long. The only option for us is to stop avoiding our thoughts and feelings any longer.
Here’s the thing about feelings: they’re just feelings. They’re not us. Feelings are simply signs that we need to pay attention to something. So, when we can no longer avoid ourselves, we need to get curious about these emotions.
We need to ask why we’re feeling so frustrated with our work, our relationships or our lives. We need to ask why we feel so disconnected with ourselves. We need to ask who we are, who and what are important to us and whether we are on our own path through life.
We need to get brave. We need to be courageous. We’re diplomats, after all! We do brave things all the time in our roles; as we play our parts. So many of us can walk into a room full of people, stand up and give a presentation on an obscure aspect of our country’s bilateral relationship with another country for 30 minutes and take questions without too much effort.
You have the courage to acknowledge your thoughts and feel your feelings, too.
Our collective sense of adventure to be in the world, not to just see it, propels us to seek out challenges as we move from place to place. Perhaps it's time to turn that sense of adventure inwards, as well.
Get the help you feel you need. Enroll the help of a coach. Talk to a professional. Talk to those around you and support each other. Unfortunately, reading this blog or a book isn’t enough. I tried that option enough times to know that, just like ignoring your thoughts and feelings, it doesn’t work.
Change happens through doing.
And we must do, if we’re to bust the cycle of frustration, regret and meek resignation for our futures. We need to take a step if we don’t like where we are now.
Let me tell you honestly and through my own experience: This is hard work. Most people will continue to numb, but as regular readers of my work, you’re more aware than that.
You’re also not alone. I’m here.
We must remember that we have the power to choose how we approach our life at any moment, mid-life crisis or not.
However, over the past week, I had the realisation that a mid-life crisis is a rare opportunity. Life gives us so few opportunities to really reflect on our lives. We can do it when we're young and deciding future career paths; but while we have book smarts, we don't have life experience. We can do it as we face our imminent mortality; but there's precious little time to do anything about it.
A mid-life crisis is almost the perfect opportunity to reconnect with ourselves and those people and things that we know are most important to us and to still have time to do something about it. Right now, we are all the sum of our skills, talents and experience. And as diplomats and those living the diplomatic life, we generally have the financial means to pay for some help.
Dig deep, do the work within yourself and get clear on what’s important to you, and then start the necessary work to bring your words, thoughts and actions into alignment.
We have the rest of our lives ahead of us. We’ve done amazing things in the first half. A little discomfort and reflection now sets us up for an amazing second half.
Did this resonate with you?
Are you numbing and avoiding your thoughts and feelings about where you are in life? Are you sometimes consumed by thoughts of ‘what if’, regret and believing you’re hemmed in?
This week, stop and listen to those thoughts and feelings. Pay them attention. There’s no need to solve them, just note them down.
You may also want to read this article by Kieran Setiya in the Harvard Business Review. Indeed, there's a wealth of information about mid-life crises and the opportunity they present. Remember, reading will only get you so far. The changes you want happen through you're actions.
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition, resilience, loneliness and connection.
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.