The things you learn when you start treating yourself with care

I am in a learning to be kind to myself. Slowly. One small, infinitesimal step at a time. The first thing I have learnt through trying to be kind to myself is that my inner critic is an incredibly harsh, bolshy, loud being. She is all blonde-hair flipping extravaganza, with a tight pink dress and diamond rings. That is how she appears in my mind. She is demanding, craving attention and worship, and wanting the best, and only the best.

The problem I have with her is that she is not me. She has probably never been me, being an extreme version of my voice, and she takes on whatever it is that worries me in a particular moment. Recently, she has been all about money and wealth, and work opportunities.

I woke up on a Saturday morning past and had a realisation. Ever since I finished my doctorate, I have been hustling. At first, the hustle was a job that paid the rent with a little extra on the side. Then the job was a postdoc opportunity (one I absolutely loved because it took me all over the country and into schools to talk to people) but which left little time for me to work on paper writing or grant applications. Now I hustle to get my research group on the map. I hustle to write things under my own name in academic publications. I hustle to write things in non-academic publications. Hustle. Hustle. Hustle.

In the last, nearly five years, I have not stopped to think about what it is I truly want. What I would like to spend my time doing. What I might be happy doing. What I might be good at. What skills I have developed along the way. I’ve been head-down, hustling. And that’s cool. Sometimes you have to hustle. Sometimes you have to be squirrelling away at something. Sometimes you have to pay the rent.

The problem is that all this hustle has been to keep that inner blonde critic quiet. I’ve been followed around and told by her that I am not good enough. That I have to keep working. That I need to earn more. That every job I’ve had has been through luck, rather than skill, and at any moment the rug might be pulled out from under me and I’ll be found out. I’ve been dogged by imposter syndrome. It has wrecked my confidence and pretty much destroyed my self-belief. I have accepted scraps because that is what I thought I deserved.

When you finally get what you think you want – in my case, monetary stability (always a good thing, after years as a student) and a job lasting longer than a few months – it is hard to think that this might not be what you actually want, what exists in the deep, hidden part of you.

I had to put together a media brief for some researchers who are traveling for one of our projects. I was supposed to be going to, and then couldn’t (for a whole variety of quite boring reasons really) and so I needed to tell them what to try and achieve in my absence. The people I briefed were nervous. What do you want exactly? How do I do that? Are you sure? And I realised that actually, I have a lot of skills that others do not.

The second thing I realised was that I haven’t really thought about how I want to live this life of mine, not seriously, for a long time. So I have started to spend some time cultivating some ideas, based on some values I’ve begun to identify by seeing and calling out my inner critic. I’ve signed up to an online group I like who send out monthly journals with prompts so that I can spend more time thinking and planning.

The biggest thing that has become apparent to me is that I want to become my own boss, and have the freedom to work wherever I choose. Those skills that I identified I have, and am really good at? Those are very mobile skills. I can work anywhere on projects using those skills. As my parents get older, I want to spend more time with them. As my cousins children grow up, I want to spend time with them too. They are all based in South Africa at the moment. I want the freedom to visit for several months at a time (this new being of delight does complicate this desire a little). If I can work while I am there, then that is a totally achievable ambition.

None of these things is necessarily easy. It has been a tough first six months of the year, and because of that, I am not making any major decisions for a while. Rather, I am going to be taking things slowly. Writing. Planning. Thinking.

How has the first half of the year been for you?

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