My resilience reset
Updated: Jan 10
A whole lot of life has happened for us in 2020 and 2021.
We need to process it in our way.
Even when it's hard and we're busy.
I write a lot about the concept of psychological resilience in my work here at The Lonely Diplomat. It’s no mistake that resilience is one of the central themes of my work, because diplomats and those who lead the diplomatic life are required to have deep wells of resilience within themselves to withstand the demands that this life puts on all those who live it.
I also write and talk about the need to normalise conversations about our mental health by moving them from the second and third persons (ie: ‘You need a break’ and ‘They need to take some time off to rest and recover’) to the first person (ie: ‘I need some time to process what’s happened’).
The reason for this is very clear – and has been the subject of a blog post and podcast episode: people connect through stories. And when we see someone who we respect being open and vulnerable, we relate to them and connect with them.
The problem is that vulnerability is scary. We risk judgment. We risk people thinking less of us. So we tend to stay safe and engage on tough issues as theoretical concepts and appearing immune to the difficulties of the human condition.
After all, we fear that if we had the reputation of not being able to cope with everything this diplomatic life throws at us, we’d not considered for a posting, a promotion or that opportunity to showcase our awesomeness at work.
But not here at The Lonely Diplomat. Here, we celebrate the awesome humans who work in diplomacy. And part of that celebration is recognising that we’re all humans and are subject to the human condition.
This includes me. In this post, I’ll share my recent experience of needing – and taking – a break to support my own mental health and well-being and replenish my resilience reserves.
Make no mistake; this post has been tough to write. The urge to perfect everything about this post is strong. Why? I want to avoid your judgment. Vulnerability is always scary, even for those who know how important it is for connection and, well, living authentically. Here goes…
A lot of life has happened in the past two years.
A parent passed away.
My wife and I separated.
I came out as a gay man to my children and then to the world.
I met a lovely man and we started dating (this is a good thing).
I moved out of the family home and moved into a very expensive, mouldy and damp hovel.
I really needed to earn a living wage.
I started another loneliness blog and podcast.
The whole COVID global pandemic thing.
My partner moved in just before lockdown (a good thing).
Money was very tight.
The lease on that very expensive, mouldy and damp hovel ended.
My partner and I became homeless and relied on the good graces of friends to let us stay in their spare room.
Money became extremely tight and became a constant stress.
We had a lovely family Christmas (a good thing).
My partner and I were finally able to depart New Zealand to come to Australia, but I left my children behind without any chance of seeing them.
We moved into our house.
I started a new job. Money concerns began to ease, but work stress increased.
The family returned to Australia, all safe and sound (a good thing).
With everyone home and with some money coming in and a secure roof over our heads, I felt like I could finally take a breath.
Only I couldn’t.
My work was ramping up. There was a return to late nights, early mornings and days filled with meetings. I tried to give myself the same micro-breaks I encourage you to take through my work days to gather myself mentally and emotionally.
They didn’t do the trick. I was always holding my breath. I dreaded the next phone call, the next crisis, the next deadline, the next ‘thing’ to happen to me.
When I found myself walking around the office with a racing mind and physically shivering, I knew that I needed a break. Two migraines in two weeks were also a big clue.
Something had to change. I needed to stop and breathe.
What I did
I reached out for help when I realised that hoping that things would get better wasn’t an effective strategy.
Only I didn’t want to reach out for help. I wanted to handle this all by myself, within myself, and still be all things to everyone. I’m the guy who helps, not gets help!
I was beginning to walk back down a very dangerous path within myself.
I found myself putting out subtle feelers during conversations and said to some of the people around me that I was feeling a ‘bit overwhelmed’. The responses I got back were blunt: suck it up. It is how it is. This is just how things are.
‘They’re right,’ I thought. ‘They had their stressful 2020s and they’re carrying on. I need to too.’
I realised how easily I’d slipped into the ‘suck it up and get on with it’ mindset. I was telling myself a dangerous story. I was denying myself my whole lived experience. I was comparing my experience to those around me and trying to convince myself that because others had it worse than me, that I wasn’t worthy of help and support.
What nonsense. I’m worthy of the same care, love and support that I tell others – including you, my lovely audience – that they’re worthy of.
Something had to give. I found myself at a crossroads: continue along the same path and suck it up and return to hoping for change; or change path and make decisions to support myself. I knew what happens when I chose the 'suck it up' path in life: loneliness and disconnection from my self. I knew that I had to live my values and be courageous.
Steps along a new path
I organised a conversation with my boss. I answered their question ‘How are you?’ honestly. I said, 'I'm struggling.'
I gave them an overview of what happened. I said that the job I was doing needed someone who was excited for the challenges ahead, not someone who was beginning to dread coming into the office. The role deserved someone who had more resilience reserves in their tank than me in that moment. I said that I needed to practice psychological resilience and return to form after years of flexing [a concept I’ve explored in previous content, see below for links].
Without going into details of the conversation, my boss and I spoke kindly and honestly with each other. I shared that I felt like I was coming down with a mental cold and needed to do something preventive before I needed something curative later. I asked for – and immediately got – a week off to get some breathing space to take stock and begin to process what had happened over the past two years. I was – and still am – immensely grateful that I was able to take time to process and to take stock.
What I noticed
I felt immense relief almost as soon as the conversation ended. The mental fog that had slowly descended over me during the previous weeks lifted. I smiled and laughed for the first time in days. I stopped shivering and began to feel warm. I was coming out of ‘fight or flight’ mode.
That feeling lasted a few minutes before the guilt set in. I felt that I was deserting my team and my work. ‘How could I be so self-indulgent and create a mess for others?’ I yelled to myself.
After a few days of not really doing much at home, I noticed a dialogue happening within me. It ranged from ‘You’ve had a few days, you’re all better now’ to ‘Maybe everything will be manageable if I took a day off a month’ through to ‘Run. Get out. This job will consume you and you and those you love most deeply will get the shell of you. I don’t want that to happen again.’
This was my ego jostling with my intuition.
I found myself being seduced by my ego. Of course, I could do the job. I’d done similar work many times before in my career. I just need to saddle up and get in there again. These thoughts were alluring. Basing my choice on my ego would result in no one being annoyed with me or disappointed in me.
But my mind would not stay set for long. My intuition would recoil back into the frame. The work’s not going to change. But you’ve changed. You need to allow yourself to continue to grow, evolve and to change. You’ve fought so hard to wrestle yourself back, why are you wanting to give yourself up so freely?
My intuition had a point. Damn it.
I’m not alone
During my week off, I went to my doctor to get the necessary medical certificate to cover my period of absence. My doctor and I connected in the way that medicine practiced in six-minute increments allow. My doctor shared that many of their patients were being worn down by the weight of expectations and ceaseless demands upon them. They said that I was the fourth such patient they’d seen that day who reported needing a mental break.
It was not yet midday.
I have great support. I need to use it.
I was chatting with my awesome partner Jeff on the evening before I was due to go back to work. He asked how I was feeling about returning to work. I told him about the battle between my ego and my intuition. He listened. He understood.
As we were chatting, the words of an oft-cited maxim around these parts came to mind: It is what it is. These words are generally said with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, a deep sigh and an uneasy acceptance of what is happening.
Not with me. I’ve learned that there’s an important, powerful, phrase that comes after It is what it is that the classical Stoics invite us to remember:
And I have the power to choose how I respond.
The decision became clear. I relaxed.
It feels good to choose how I will respond based on what I know to be right for me and those most important to me. I get to live my values.
For other lonely diplomats
In reading these words, how do you feel right now? Does the idea of a resilience reset seem appealing? Do you resent me for taking one?
Can you allow yourself one?
Did your answer to that last question start with ‘Yes, but… ’? What excuse did you come up with? Too busy? Too important?
It’s often tempting to ignore and deny those inconvenient thoughts and feelings within us, especially when we're working hard to get through another crisis, another event, another deadline, another day. Indeed, we may get very good at the ignoring and denying, but it’s never a lasting strategy.
What is within always comes out.
I realise that you may be on a posting now and work in a small team. You may have caring responsibilities. You may be required to be on all the time in your current role and not being on isn’t an option. The option to step back and take some time may not be open to you. I’m sorry if that’s the case. But you will do well to remember that you too are worthy of the same care and support which you so freely provide to others.
You may not be able to take a few days to sit in a hammock and watch the sunset or watch Netflix in your pyjamas while eating ice cream from the tub. You can, however, start by building in resilience resets into your day.
You could start by turning off the news. Check social media once in your day. You can communicate and then enforce boundaries, such as saying to your boss that you’re not checking emails at night and on the weekend and that if anything urgent arises, they can call you. You can connect with a friend. You can reconnect with your significant other. You can reconnect with your self.
Less doing; more being will refill those resilience tanks.
After a few days away from work, I felt that my resilience tanks had some fuel in them and I was ready to engage with the world again. I’m was open about my boundaries and articulated them very clearly. After all, no one else is going to give me the balance I need in my life. I need to create that space. I say no more often than I say yes. This inconveniences others and may affect my future career prospects, but I know that I have more capacity for who – and what – is more important to me. I still do great work, only work is kept in its place.
How are your resilience tanks? Are they depleted too? Email me if you’d like to share your experience of a resilience reset with me. I’d love to hear your experience and I’ll reflect on our collective experience in an upcoming episode of The Lonely Diplomat podcast.
Thanks for reading!
A reminder that ‘Minister’ and ‘Ambassador’-level members of The Lonely Diplomat can access my mentoring services and can talk to me regularly – and in real time – about what’s happening in their diplomatic life and receive wisdom distilled from lived experience as a posted diplomat, an accompanying spouse, a parent AND as someone whose relationship ended while on a diplomatic posting. Become a member here.
Thank you for reading this post. I really appreciate your support and I hope that my work continues to serve, support, challenge and inspire you as you reconnect with yourself and the world around you.
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Important notice: All views expressed above 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.