Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Travelling: Expectations & Achievements

Before I quit my job, gave up my flat and left the country I had so many expectations of what this time away would entail. Choosing to essentially walk away from your life, particularly when you're settled with community and 'a place in the world' can be scary, however I was consoled by the fact that I had great big plans for this year 'out' of my life; that this time wouldn't be a waste or a lazy thing to do. I found comfort in the fact that I would have space to achieve things unrelated to a job - I would grow and expand myself and my skills. I would have time to get creative. I would have time to reflect and think about my future. I would have time to achieve things for me, rather than for my career. I imagined myself writing every day, spilling my heart and soul onto paper as I discovered new things about myself and was captivated by the world around me. Ha.

Four months in and my blog is empty, still stuck on my wedding speech from August 2015 (except for this now, obviously. I do see the irony). I am about a quarter of a way into one Masters application, stuck on what to say to convince academics that I deserve to come to their University and study. While I am reflecting every day none of it is quite making it into coherent words like I hoped it would. I feel tired, rather than inspired. I'm severely lacking sleep, rather than having paid off my sleep debt with tons to spare. I miss the adrenaline of work, despite the fact that bouncing between full-on work trips and taking days off in lieu to sleep it off was killing me. I am angry, and disappointed, and wondering where I went wrong.


As a person pretty good at introspection I need no help in answering that question. I know exactly where I went wrong. It's the same reason I spend 90% of my time in my 'real life', (as I've started to refer to before-travelling) being disappointed in myself rather than enjoying the moment. It's being on the wrong side of the line that divides ambition from obsession. It's having unrealistic expectations of yourself, and ultimately those around you; expectations that constantly buy into the lie that you are not doing enough. And no matter how much you can recognise this about yourself, intellectually, or comfort others who feel the same with mantras about 'being enough', it doesn't stop your every waking moment being driven by a clawing feeling in the bottom of your stomach that tells you you are not 'doing enough', that you are not meeting expectations.
So I knew this about myself, and naively thought that changing the rhythm of my life, changing the activities within my life and disappearing to the other side of the world would help to solve this. I would have time and would be able to re-prioritise.
Except it doesn't work like that.
Changing your surroundings doesn't change you. Changing how you spend your time doesn't change you. It's all just a well-meaning distraction. All that has happened is I've just set myself a new list of unrealistic expectations that have simply been leading to more and more disappointment the further I've got into the trip, stealing from me the joy of the moment. Blinding me from all the seemingly small things I am achieving on a day to day basis.

Travelling with anxiety, Dan says that I'm the strongest person he knows, but I don't feel strong, I feel weak and angry. I feel angry that travelling around India is so much more exhausting than when I lived here, and I just didn't see it coming. For example, living in the safety of Sangam I was shielded from how noisy people are at night. I don't mean road noise - I live in London after all. I mean playing the TV full blast at 2am or letting your kids run up and down corridors at midnight banging on the doors. While in the past I'd liked the Indian attitude of not worrying over the small things, when you can't sleep because someone's got their TV blasting at 2am you just start to see it as rudeness and you get exasperated that Indians can't seem to think about their impact on others (this is not true, it's just part of viewing the world and your place in it in a different way - I just can't be that reasonable at 2am). Another example: it's so hard to find what I need for self care here. I knew I would lose routine but I didn't predict how negatively not having my church or my weekly yoga class would affect my mental state.
I'm angry that this trip is not what I expected. I'm angry that my expectations have not been met, of myself, of the time I'd have, of the drive and creativity I'd feel, of my surroundings. I'm angry because I wasn't kind enough to myself to make allowances for days I would need to just sleep, because I didn't think that overnight buses would wipe me out as much as they are. I'm angry because I didn't anticipate how much time is taken up by figuring out how to get to the next place, and how to spend our time, despite prior research. I'm angry that I wasn't kind enough to think that maybe my anxiety would mean I couldn't stay in party hostels because talking to people I don't know, without common ground or values, is too difficult for me. I'm angry with myself for not taking any lessons I've learnt about myself in the past (in my 'real life') and applying them to this trip, and now I still don't have the kindness within me to forgive myself for making these mistakes in the first place.

Expectations and goals can be great to drive us forward, foster our ambitions and give us something to aim for. However, when we set expectations and goals we need to understand the environment we're setting these goals and expectations in. Just surviving out here is something that I should be proud of myself for, but I'm not because I thought I'd be able to achieve so much more. (There are separate reasons for why I think I feel the need to have these expectations - something around feeling I have to 'earn' this time off, probably.)
It's also hard when people you love and admire seem so able to achieve so many things on a daily basis, and are setting exciting goals left, right and centre. I feel adrift because some days it's an achievement to even get out of bed and I can barely think about what I'm going to have for dinner let alone set a New Year's resolution. I think knowing our limitations can help but I don't think that relieves the pressure of what we feel we could achieve if we were just as 'good' as someone else. If we could just push ourselves to be 'more motivated' or 'more creative'. If if if we could just be more more more... And when you're only ever thinking about how to be 'more' you stop noticing what's around you. You stop being kind to yourself. You stop finding the joy.
These were all issues and realisations that I'd explored within myself before, and thought I'd made good headway in getting past, however I guess that when you're vulnerable everything comes back up to the surface and you can't quite let go of the feeling that you're failing.

So right now, I'm trying to redo my expectations of this trip, now that I have more information about what it's like to be here, and I'm trying to look back at what I've achieved since we left home. The problem is that nothing feels like an achievement because the frames of reference have changed. I can no longer measure success by the number of emails I sent, or the number of hours I volunteered for, or how often I practised my guitar.
I can't help thinking that I'm setting myself up to fail because I'm trying to measure the wrong things. I'm trying to measure success by the things I did at home that felt like achievements, rather than recognising what an achievement looks like out here. Maybe an achievement is surviving an overnight bus, lugging your bags across a country border on no sleep, finding the next bus and then navigating your way to your hotel successfully - all with no food in your belly - rather than whether or not I wrote a blog post about where we visited or completed another day on Duolingo.
Maybe the 'learning' looks different out here too, and I won't be able to reflect and see what I've gained, how I've changed and what I've achieved until afterwards. Until I can look back and, literally and figuratively, see how far we've come.
I don't think I will ever be at the point of accepting that maybe I don't need to 'achieve' anything while I'm away - I'm just not ready for that radicalness! But I can at least start by accepting and recognising that my old expectations were unrealistic and stop beating myself up for not having achieved them. Maybe then I can stop being so angry and disappointed, I can move the goalposts and start enjoying the moment.