Updated: Mar 23
Change is scary for me too.
I can doubt my own bravery.
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Dear Phil in 2016
It’s me, writing to you from 2020. You’re no doubt wondering why I’m writing to you and, without question, think it’s a weird thing to do. Trust me, your 2020 self thinks it’s a weird thing to do, too.
I wanted to send you these words and thoughts from 2020 me to 2016 me/you, and I usually start letters and emails with the question ‘How are you?’ so, how are you?
I know the answer. You’ll say that you’re great with a big smile on your face. You’ll say that work is good and the family is all fit and healthy. You’ll say that Seoul is a great city to live in (2020 me/you misses it terribly) and that life’s good.
But, how are you?
Yes, I know that you’re feeling fit. You’re healthy. You’re getting great stuff done at work. You’re implementing some changes at work and you’re all starting to see the benefits of those changes. This is great.
But, how are you?
We’re now at the third ‘how are you?’. You know that I really mean it and want to know the answer.
You’re sad, aren’t you? You feel foolish and selfish for admitting it, because you’re achieving almost everything you set out to do in life.
You feel like you’re racing towards an artificial deadline for when you turn 40 next year and you feel lost that you don’t have anything big enough to aim for. You’re about to ask questions of yourself, like: ‘Is this it?’ and ‘Is this what I’ve worked so long and hard for all these years?’ It feels as though you’ve been running a race to get somewhere but are only just coming to realise that you’re racing alone. Do this mean that you’re on the wrong track? Have you missed the point of life entirely?
I know that you’re spending a lot of time comparing yourself to those around you. You’re noticing how everyone around you seems to have all their shit together, but you’re feeling like a fraud. Well, more like a fraud than you ever have because you’ve felt like a fraud for an awfully long time. You marvel at how others can be great at their jobs, be liked and respected and have their home life sorted.
You’re feeling insignificant and empty, like there’s a void opening up within you. It’s getting harder and harder to keep up the appearance that everything is great and under control. You’re surrounded by people, but you’re feeling lost and alone.
Here’s a truth that you’re not yet ready to hear: You’re lonely.
How does that truth sit with you?
It’s time to take off the mask of endless competence and eternal good humour. The reason that it’s getting harder to keep up the appearance that everything is great within you is that you’re beginning to suffocate under those masks. You’re worried that the world and those in your life are relating to the masks you’re wearing and not the ‘real’ you underneath.
But you’re not even sure who you really are underneath those masks, are you?
I know that you put them on a long time ago to convince the world that you’re capable and confident. That’s OK, so many people around you are wearing masks too. Just like you, they’re all working so desperately hard to fake it ‘til they make it.
You need help to gradually take off those masks. This is OK. You’re not a failure when you accept the help of others. Asking for, and then accepting, the help of others is still something that you’re working on in 2020. You’re getting better at it, but it continues to be a struggle.
Indeed, the people from whom you ask for help are generally only too happy to step up and support you. It’s counterintuitive to you now, but the fact that you ask for and accept help actually creates the meaningful connection you desperately crave.
The masks you’re wearing are an attempt to please everyone else in your life – including strangers – and you’re hustling for their acceptance and validation.
I know that you want to wait to make changes until you know that you’ll do them perfectly. I know that you’ll read books and think about what changes you need to make. I know that you’re working hard to implement some changes in your life, especially around boundaries at work.
How’s that going? You’re keeping quiet about them, aren’t you? You don’t want to open yourself to judgement if you get the changes wrong. The judgement you fear is your own. This need for perfection is yet another mask. The same level of care and love you have for those in your life needs to be given to yourself.
You need to be vulnerable. You need to let in the people in your life. You need to be seen for being you, not the masks you’re hiding behind. This is as scary for you in 2016 as it is for you in 2020. I assure you that you being your authentic self gives permission for those around you to be themselves too.
I know that you’re terrified that if you show that you’re struggling or somehow not eternally capable that the promotion opportunities you so crave will disappear. In fact, the reverse happens. When you show up in the world as yourself – be that in the workplace, in meetings with other governments or in your own time – you create an environment where you’re seen and trusted.
People want to engage with you, not with the mask you’re wearing. Let people in.
I’m here to tell you that life gets even better than how it feels now. By being you, you’ll realise that you’re far more courageous than you ever thought capable. And, no spoilers, but you write a book, write a regular blog on a website you design and maintain and produce your own podcast that helps hundreds of people around the world each week. You do this by simply showing up in the world as yourself, admitting and being ok with that fact that you’re an imperfectly awesome human.
Not for a moment am I saying that everything will go exactly the way you plan. And this is OK. It may not go as you plan, but things work out just as they need to. You still struggle with the need for external validation. You will hurt and disappoint some people. Others will ridicule and dismiss you. Some people who you feel are with you now will leave your life. This hurts. All I can say is that you will get through it by remaining true to yourself and by asking for help and support and resisting the desire to put the masks back on. Indeed, their departure will create space for some amazing new people to enter your life and get settled in your corner and you will be invited to be in their corners.
This is connection. This is what will fill that void you’re beginning to feel within you. You’ll be you in all your stubborn, determined, scared, brave and human awesomeness.
You’re about to embark on your journey inward to self-discovery. Sorry for using ‘journey’. You hate that word more in 2020 than you do in 2016, but it’s accurate. You’re about to start the first round of your Hero’s Journey (the video really speaks to you and calls you forward) and you’ll keep levelling up as you learn more and more about yourself.
You’ll soon be inspired by the people you let into your life to help you. You’ll resolve to make changes with their help and support. You’ll make those changes in a sometimes messy and inelegant way, but you will inspire yourself and others in the process and by simply putting your skills and interests into the world.
I’ll wrap this up because I know that you’re really busy (that busyness is a total mask, by the way. Busyness is a choice). I want to say a few final things.
- Go and buy Dr. Seuss’ book ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go!’ It’ll change you.
- It may not feel like it, but you’re far from alone.
- You are loved, for I love you.
- You are seen, for I see you.
- You belong, for you belong to yourself.
- You are accepted, for I accept you.
I can’t wait for you to join me in 2020. But don’t rush. The process you’re about to start of reconnecting to yourself and to the world around you is important. Be brave. Be courageous. Ask for, and accept, the help you need to become you.
Oh, and you sign off emails and other stuff by saying ‘Be awesomely and humanly you, because the world needs more you.’ I always mean it, but never more than for you now.
~ Phil from 2020
Want to know more?
Ep. 24 - On making changes (from Saturday 6 June 2020)
Phil McAuliffe, ‘The Lonely Diplomat: reconnecting with yourself and the world around you’ (amazon.com)
This post centred on the 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.