The Lonely Diplomat: on our soulaches
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
I have an important question to ask you.
Please, only read this if you’re prepared to be honest with your self.
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This is a different post than what I usually write. This is deliberate. I want to give this and the next four posts and podcasts some space. I want to give you, my awesome reader, some space to reflect on the issues I’ll raise within each of them as they’re each fundamental to how we each experience our diplomatic life. Indeed, they’re each fundamental to how we experience life.
This is not a post to read when you’re running between meetings or with an eye on the kids or the news channel in front of you. This is a post to read when you’re comfortable and can give yourself some time to really reflect on the questions and the meanings of my words for you.
If you can do that, I warmly invite you to read on.
* * * * *
I have a question for you. I want you to take your time in answering it. It’s a simple, but important, question and I want you to take some time to really reflect on your answer.
As I wrote in my introduction just a few lines ago, I invite you to get comfortable and get yourself a cup or a glass of something nice, and maybe even your journal to write down some thoughts.
OK, have you got all that sorted? Are you ready?
My question to you is:
Who are you?
This question is different to the question ‘What do you do?’, which I’m sure is how many of you have answered that question. I know I did when I was asked it the first time.
I’ll ask it again:
Who are you?
This is a deep question, isn’t it? I love it, and it’s devastatingly effective. It cuts through the stories we tell ourselves about our own importance and exposes the sources of our sense of self-worth. It goes right to the very heart of, well, who you are. It raises a whole lot of subsequent questions about what your values are and how you live them. It also forces you to reflect on what makes you, well, you.
Could you write or say your response in a similar way to how I’ve shared who I am on this page on my site? [When you get to that page, scroll down to ‘Who am I?’]
You might really struggle with how you answer that question right now. I’m okay with the fact that you may be uncomfortable, and I’m very familiar with the discomfort within myself.
It’s an important question to which you need to know your answer. I can assure you that the process of reconnecting within yourself begins with a clear answer to that question.
I’m going to guess that, if you’re like me, you don’t have an answer to that question that didn’t relate strongly to what you do. When I was asked this question back in 2016, I gave some long and involved answer that addressed all the awesome things that I did at work and the results I was achieving. My answer would have been perfect in a job interview, but it really didn’t cut it in life.
My answer to that question was the shock I needed to move me out of my comfortable soulache – the existential feeling of being lost within myself to which I’d grown accustomed and believed was my lot in life.
Perhaps I’ve just done the same for you.
What’s the problem?
If you’re not what you do, who are you?
As a diplomat, if you’ve spent years climbing that corporate ladder, you’ve likely given so much of yourself – indeed, you’ve given so much of your self – away that you may not know who you are any more.
Stop and reflect on that for a moment. Re-read that last paragraph if you need to.
I hope that this sits uncomfortably for you. I really do. The discomfort is good, because it’s only when we’re uncomfortable do we do something about it.
Over time, we humans – diplomats included, remember – can learn to put up with anything. I grew accustomed to my soulache. You’ve probably grown accustomed to editing and adjusting your self to prove to someone, somewhere in your employing agency that you’re made of the ‘right stuff’; that you’re worthy and that you’re enough.
And we all edit our selves and project images of our selves eagerly and willingly in the first phase of our careers. This is how we get ahead of our competition, after all. It’s just how things are done.
But you’ve paid a price for all this editing and projection, haven’t you? You can realise that you’ve become your job: you are your job and your job is you.
And with a job like diplomacy which expects – no, demands – that you are your job for the term of your posting, this doesn’t come as a surprise.
When you reach your mid-career and feel the twinges of your own soulache, you likely supervise younger diplomats who are doing the same thing you once did to get ahead and to be where you are now. Only, where you are now is not how you thought it would be, is it? Yes, you may live and work in an exotic and glamourous global city and doing the job of your younger dreams, but the reality is that – save for a few instances – you’re largely responsible for making sure that the bureaucratic beast is kept fed. Sometimes, it feels like you're trying to eat and the seagulls are insatiable. You’re responsible for getting the massive amounts of work demanded of your team done in the meagre time you’re given to do it. Moreover, knowing that government priorities can – and frequently do – shift quickly, you know that all the effort can feel like it was for nought. You pivot yet once more and continue on.
Cue your existential soulache.
This is an awful realisation. I know that it was for me. While I love the idea of what I do and how I was contributing to my country, I felt sick that I had given so much of myself – so much of my self – to impress other people.
My soulache was the price I paid for this editing of my self and the projection of an image that I was worthy and made of the right stuff. I had disconnected with my authentic self.
If you’re an accompanying significant other living the diplomatic life, you’re likely familiar with the sense of disconnection we can feel when you’re no longer defined by what you do. Indeed, as an accompanying significant other, you’ve likely wrestled with the question ‘Well, who am I now?’ every time you’ve moved. You’re likely very well accustomed to feeling that soulache.
However you’re living your diplomatic life, have you tried working your own way through these feelings too? You know, working hard to find that thing that you love most about your job or your life and then doing it desperately? What about exercising? What about drinking? What about abusing prescription or illicit drugs? Shopping? Sex? Gambling? Travel (well, travel planning at least)? Have you feigned disaffection? You know what I mean: you’re sharing with everyone who’ll listen just how, well, fucked-up (sorry Mum) everything is and how you’re so over it in a way that actually shows that you really still care deeply. Or have you just checked out and are going through the motions?
Let me tell you, what used to work for you won’t keep working like it used to and like you desperately want it to. No, my dear reader, once that soulache settles in, my experience is that the only thing that moves it is stopping and paying it some special attention. The sort of special attention I’ve invited you to start in reading this blog.
I know how courageous it is to stop and feel the feelings and think the thoughts. Well done.
What to do now
I’m sorry to say that there’s no magic pill that cures or numbs an existential soulache caused by disconnection from your self. It requires time, patience, focus and a truck-load of courage.
But you're worth it.
Now that you’re here, can you keeping being courageous and keep reflecting on your answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ until the next post in a few weeks’ time?
It’s important that you do work on your answer to the ‘Who are you?’ question. Write it down. Say your answer out aloud. Talk to your significant other. Talk to me, if you’d like.
I’d love to talk with you and help you if you feel that I can listen and help. Sign up to become a Minister or Ambassador-level member and let's arrange your chat.
Want to know more?
Honestly, dear reader, all of my words have been leading to this post. It’s ALL related. If you’d like some more suggestions to read up or listen to some wisdom, here they are:
Diplomatic spouses of the world, unite!
On being a male diplomatic spouse
Phil McAuliffe, ‘The Lonely Diplomat: reconnecting with yourself and the world around you’ (amazon.com)
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.