Updated: Jul 21, 2019
Sharing a personal, semi-rambly blog post about my year away from the Philippines so far, dealing with doubt and insecurity, and choosing hope and trust.
Wherever you are, you are meant to be here now.
There's always a lesson to be learned, if you are open to it.
And I'm telling you this, as much as I am telling myself.
Whenever we are thrust into new places, or even just new situations or circumstances, we may ask ourselves: What am I doing here?
And if you made the active choice to be where you are now (and if you're reading this, you probably did), you may be asking yourself: Is this the right place for me to be? Did I make the right decision? What lessons can I learn here?
About a year ago, I found out that after two attempts to get a Chevening scholarship, I finally got it, and that I would be off to take up a Masters in Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey's Center for Environment and Sustainability. I was elated with the good news and the sense of accomplishment that came with even making the cut for this prestigious scholarship. But also, with it came a sense of anxiety: of what I would be leaving behind, of what I would be moving to, of what I would be expected to achieve by the end of the year, and of what I would be expected to do once I got back home to the Philippines.
Upon arriving in the UK in September and for my first few months, I don't think I was completely open to the full experience. I kept wondering if I made the right choice to be based in this university outside London, when the two of my closer friends in the UK were based there, and it seemed like there were so many more events happening there for both learning and networking. The city girl in me was feeling a bit of FOMO.
I would also see the posts of my Muni team running events in Manila, and I had feelings of missing that community that I had back home too. And if I'm being very honest, which I am, I didn't feel so inclined to "network" as actively here in the UK because it didn't feel as meaningful to me as connecting with the community in the Philippines, which I now felt so far away from.
I felt like I was failing in so many ways. I felt like I was overwhelmed and underachieving with my studies, I was failing to guide, give vision/direction, motivate and support my Muni team as CEO, I was failing at being a good friend to people that mattered, I was failing at "making the most" of the other potential learning and networking opportunities here in the UK, I wasn't swimming anymore, I wasn't writing; and increasingly, it seemed like signs of life were disappearing, in my external and internal environment, as it got cold, gray and miserable.
By January, I adjusted better to my new living conditions and when my studies had given me more breathing room (as my overloaded first semester was nearly over), I resolved to get out of the rut of being stressed, rushing to meet deadlines, constantly doubting myself and where I'm supposed to be, and not making time for quality self-care and personal development. So, I started reading books to get me into better working order (James Clear's Atomic Habits, for one), I signed up for a swim membership at the nearby sports park, organized a small event for my department, and told myself I would write more consistently, which I told myself I'd do in the UK but hadn't really done up until that point. Nothing like a new year to motivate one's self to make a change.
For a while, it worked wonders. I had a fitness and productivity routine down, I was building good habits; I was enjoying where I was, and reveling in the humble beauty of the outdoors in Guildford even if it was still in the dead of winter (albeit a relatively warm one, most of the English would say, though saying that hardly made a difference to this tropical girl).
I also read Cal Newport's Deep Work, which curbed my appetite for social media, and invited me to rediscover the joys of a digitally disconnected life, or rather, a more connected analog life, where technology only served as a tool when needed, and not a constant, addictive distraction.
March came in, and my parents came for a visit later that month until early April, and I tried my best to be an ace tour guide: researching and keeping tabs on schedules, train and bus times and show times; and be an ace yaya: running errands, doing the groceries, preparing our meals whenever we didn't eat out, doing laundry more frequently, cleaning up, etc. I showed them what I could of London, with my limited knowledge of it, but what I enjoyed more was showing them the simple joys of my "provincial" life in Guildford.
And while I told myself I would do my best to stick to some of the routines I tried to cultivate and concretize over the winter, I found it very challenging. I justified the lapses in my routine by saying that they wouldn't be here for very long, and it was the least I could do to show my appreciation for their visit (and basically all the years they spent trying to raise, feed, clothe, shelter and educate me). But that was the beginning of a series of lazinesses and me feeling like I'd forgotten what it was like to study, dig into my readings and do deep work.
Around this time, I also allowed myself more human interaction once again (in very small groups), after a solitary (but happy and rewarding) winter. I allowed myself a longer and longer break, and told myself I deserved to enjoy life and enjoy the (mostly) good weather that had finally come.
[Signs of spring at Wisley Gardens, Surrey]
[Cherry blossoms at their peak at the Kew Gardens in London]
[Guildford castle grounds with tulips in full bloom]
[One of my favorite places to hang after a short bike ride along the River Wey in Guildford]
Simultaneously, I was chastising myself for letting my routine go. I struggled to get it back and found that I was working much slower than I previously did. And again, unproductive, unhelpful thoughts started to fill my head, and I began spending more time either stressing out about things or completely vegging out, rather than doing what I could to alleviate my self-imposed suffering by actually just getting things done.
Instead of staying away from social media in order to focus on my "connected analog life", which is a very good and valid reason, I also began avoiding it if I didn't need to get in touch with certain people, primarily because I didn't want to post anything as if everything was moving along swimmingly, nor did I want to post (or whine) about my struggles because I felt I had nothing to show for it and was therefore a failure. And I didn't want to see everyone else's highlight reel, which would further exacerbate my feelings of failure.
Fortunately, my dissertation, though I had / still have many doubts about its meaningfulness (I'm still in the thick of analysis and writing), forced me to look into motivation, and to have Skype interviews with several inspiring sustainability leaders from the Philippines (from business, NGO and government, those around my age (30s) to those closer to my parents' age (60s)), whose journeys have been longer and fraught with more challenges than my own. Furthermore, speaking with all these people made me feel reconnected to a community of Filipinos who were also working to create sustainable change, effectively managing their doubt and fear and choosing hope and courage.
During one of our earlier consultations, my dissertation supervisor told me that he felt my dissertation was really more than just an academic exercise for me. And when I was finally interviewing some of these people who really inspired me, I realized he was right. While it may not ultimately contribute anything groundbreaking in the field of sustainability, leadership or psychology, it is what I needed, and I think that the only thing that really matters from my own dissertation at this point, is its contribution to my own personal growth and development. (More on my dissertation in a later post.)
Come June, I took another break from dissertation work to flex my public speaking, teaching and facilitating muscles once again -- something I realized I had missed this whole time that I'd not been running Muni events or workshops. In January, I was contacted by the heads of ASOG's Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship program (ALSE) for OFWs to facilitate one session in Milan and one in Rome, after having run a few ALSE sessions in Macau and a talk in Madrid in years prior.
And so, for this, I flew (for the first time in the whole year after a self-imposed flight ban) to Italy, staying a few more days to travel in other parts of the country between Milan and Rome, and enjoy the warm weather, glorious sunshine and cheesy and gelato-y goodness (so sorry vegan friends).
[Obviously enjoying the company of the spirited participants of ALSE Batch 76 in Milan]
Interesting events and mishaps occurred after my workshop in Rome, but that's a story for another time, suffice it to say that I felt really validated after running those sessions, that facilitating learning, insight and inspiration, and building community is really what I want to do.
I more fully embraced that yes, I was meant to be here all along. And instead of fanning all the negativity that my self-doubt brings, I can instead hope and trust that the universe has its own weird way of making things happen if I choose to be patient, persevering and believe in myself and in others (versus just having passive, naive optimism).
Embrace Your Inner Impostor
I had come to the UK hoping to equip myself with greater knowledge, experience and network, in my head, to be able to create better impact through community engagement and education - be it through corporate, social enterprise, academe, or even the development sector. And I didn't feel I could do that with my previous academic background and work experience (I'm a Psychology graduate who went into a number of different jobs or projects while trying to be a successful entrepreneur / a financially sustainable sustainability advocate). I felt like I lacked the subject matter expertise to really teach or talk about sustainability with authority if I didn't have another resource person there with me. I felt like a glorified "events organizer" (which some people called me, because they found it hard to explain what I do otherwise lol).
But then I realized that getting a Masters doesn't necessarily get rid of your Impostor Syndrome. If anything, it makes you realize how much more you still don't really know, and how much more catching up you will need to do. It can make you feel even more like an impostor. But also, it makes you realize that other seasoned individuals in the field struggle too in spite of their knowledge and experience, because the challenges of sustainable development can be quite complex.
And as scary as this may sound, we don't need to get everything down perfectly. We just need to have enough knowledge and skills to be good enough to take the next step, otherwise, we may never act at all (Parkin, 2011). And while it's always a struggle to feel good enough, I need to remind myself (and perhaps you too, if you need this reminder right now) that when we challenge ourselves to go for something out of our comfort zone, it's likely that even if we're not currently good enough, we are resourceful and persevering enough to try our darnedest to find a way to overcome barriers and challenges. We'll figure it out as we actually do the work.
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says: "Perfectionists decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don't even bother trying to be creative in the first place". Same with creative writing as in creative solutions-making. She goes on to say: "Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome."
Perhaps Impostor Syndrome is something we don't really get rid of, even when you've been working at something for so long, and perhaps that's a good thing. Because once you feel comfortable with what you know, you stop learning. And as long as the impostor in me doesn't stop me from trying, then I'm happy for insecurity to occupy a little space in my mind so that I stay open and proactively seek out opportunities to learn and better myself.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results. Penguin Publishing Group.
Gilbert, E. (2016). Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Piatkus.
Parkin, S. (2010). The Positive Deviant: Sustainability Leadership in a Perverse World. Earthscan.