I spent three months in England, for several reasons. One was that I love the UK immensely: I have been coming there for 20 years, and in recent years I visited about three times a year. Another reason was that I was burnt out and needed a rest. At home, in the Netherlands, I kept running around in my wheel like a hamster, not seeing anywhere to stop running.
Ten years ago, I had a psychotherapist and to her I told her that I would like to go to England for a longer time. Maybe even move! She said it was running, that wherever I went I would bring my worries and problems with me. That I was better off staying where I was and sorting it out in the Netherlands. But ten years later, I was still running into the same problems.
It turns out that psychotherapists are not always right. That’s the first lesson: sometimes trust your own intuition, even if specialists say otherwise. Staying in North Yorkshire, between the North Sea and the North York Moors that are full of heather, is the best thing I have done in years. I have learned more here than in the last five years and I can say it has saved me in a substantial way. Now I don’t want to say it works for everyone, but if you feel deep down that you should do something like what I did: do it.
These months flew by. Now that I am back home, I reflect on the lessons I learnt here so that I keep remembering them. A few of these lessons I share below.
1. My job doesn’t define who I am
A lot goes under my ‘workaholic’ nature, mostly that I want to be useful to others. I worked so hard that I lost myself. My identity became that of ‘illustrator’, ‘photographer’, ‘writer’ or ‘graphic designer’, whereas I am more than the work I do. Everyone is more than their profession.
In recent years, I didn’t give much time to conscious living and mostly put energy into the production I was running. That is slowly changing now. I am learning that I am a complete human being without my work. Yes, I work as an illustrator/writer/artist, but I am also a down-to-earth person who likes to have deep conversations, loves to walk and swim for hours, doesn’t like to go to parties but loves to sit in a pub with someone, prefers to sleep under freshly washed blankets, and collects more books than makes time to read them. Amongst others.
2. Being more conscious of how I spend my time
I am very service-minded. I often prioritise another person, even strangers, more than myself. My DMs and email inbox fill up every day with questions and requests, I could dedicate my life to helping all the people who need my brain or hands for one thing or another. Often unpaid too.
Until a few years ago, I answered every email and DM I got, taking more than four hours a day. Now, I don’t answer everything. Not that I find that easy, but if I want to have a life besides staring at screens, I will have to. Time is incredibly precious, because once you spend it, you don’t get it back. As such, it is more precious than money. So now I regularly ask myself: ‘is this what I want to spend my most precious commodity on?’
After all, just because someone wants something from me does not mean I am obliged to give it.
3. Walking outside is healing
The countryside of England did me a lot of good. Walking five minutes from the cottage, I came to a gate that led to the edge of the North York Moors. There the vast meadows begin, without seeing a motorway or house. The further you walk, the quieter it gets. You hear pheasants, birds and the sound heather makes in the wind. I need that peace and quiet, places where humans are silent for a while. I have yet to find such a place in the Netherlands.
Because walking is such an automatic movement, you can let your thoughts run wild, and so walking feels like a mini-therapy session.
4. Quiet surroundings = quiet mind
It took me a long time to want to see this, but I am not a city person. When I moved from Drenthe to Rotterdam ten years ago, my career got a boost, but I also had panic attacks. When I moved just outside the city a few years ago, I hardly had any. But even just outside the big city, where there are still lots of motorways, where people honk if you don’t accelerate your car at traffic lights within a millisecond, where the person behind you in the queue at the supermarket starts to sigh very loudly if you don’t put your groceries on the belt fast enough, and where you hear aeroplanes or other machines everywhere: I almost always feel restless and under pressure.
After all, the Dutch Randstad (the west side of the country) is built on speed. If you don’t run along so fast, you block the way for others. I don’t want to run so fast and can’t (anymore). That is why I have asked my partner if we can eventually move to the east of the country, somewhere outside a village.
5. Surrounding myself with the right people
There is a quote by Jim Rohn that you are the sum of the five people you spend time with the most. I think it’s more nuanced, but there is truth to it. I find that if I surround myself mainly with people who have certain views, that becomes my bubble, whereas I want to stay open. That’s why I started looking more closely at which people I have in my immediate circle. Who makes me a better person? Who makes me learn to look differently at what I take for granted? Who is nice to complain about trivial things with? Who is there for me in the middle of the night when needed? Who makes me feel good about who I am? To whom do I add value? If someone makes me feel bad about who I am far too often and for whom I am not good enough, I let them go as someone in my immediate circle.
6. When I choose me, I do not directly harm someone else
If I had to choose to disappoint another person (whether it’s family or a client) or myself, I preferred to disappoint myself. Much easier to deal with. This sometimes resulted in having so many things planned in my schedule that I no longer had weekends or evenings free. As a result, I often went way over my limits, and that ended up being one of the reasons for my burnout. I haven’t quite mastered it yet, because this year too I won’t celebrate my birthday (and my niece’s, partner’s and mother’s) because I have too much work scheduled and therefore no breathing space. But I now feel what I am missing, and that is painful enough to start doing things differently.
7. Social media sometimes makes me feel less connected
I have met the nicest people on social media and made many friends, and it is a wonderful medium to showcase your work. But sometimes the balance is just skewed. That’s why I’m more mindful now about how I spend my time online.
A few of my friends post almost only political or world issues on social media. I noticed that I felt less and less connected to them because I only saw one (extreme) side of them and not the whole picture. But spending a day with one of those friends I realised that they’re more than the content they posts on social media, that they are less extreme in real life than they present theselves online. I re-connected with them.
So, how social is social media really when we are actually drifting further away from each other? I’d like to meet up with friends more to feel more connected to them. On social media you often see too much of just one side and not the whole picture. We’re more than our jobs, but also more than our social media accounts portray.
I also notice that I feel less connected to myself when I scroll on social media for too long. I see so many options and regularly question: ‘should I do that too?’, especially when it comes to work. This sometimes makes me doubt myself and feel less in tune with what I need or want.
When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we reach for our phones faster. You often hear that social media has the same effect as a drug addiction, so when we feel less well, we reach for sedation. But on those very days, we should put away the phone and not look at it. Meet up with a friend (okay, you can use your phone for that), go for a long walk outside or bake a cake. Do something with your hands so that your head reconnects with your body and you start feeling what you need again.
I sometimes take a break from social media now. In those moments, I come back to myself and feel more in tune. By putting my focus on myself instead of everyone else online, I reconnect with myself.
Such a soppy statement, but:
8. It’s not about the destination: it’s about the journey
Work less and live more. I plan on going somewhere for a period of time every year to recharge, as I did in England. I want to work less so that there is more time to live consciously. I sometimes rush so quickly through days that I don’t always experience my life consciously. Days become vague memories.
I don’t want it to say on my tombstone later, “At least she met all deadlines”. If it were really about the final destination, life in itself doesn’t even matter.
I used to have work goals, and as soon as I achieved them I was already working on the next project, without enjoying the achievement of that goal.
When I was climbing a mountain in North Yorkshire with my partner, he was totally enjoying the climbing itself. I was ranting, “if we don’t have a nice view later, I’m going to cry!”. That’s the difference between us: I work hard for the end result, while he enjoys the path to it. On top of the mountain was indeed a beautiful view, and I sat down to enjoy it (I should do the same more often with my work). He immediately walked on and said, “look, another hill!”, without taking a look at the view. A balance between both walking towards something and enjoying the end station would be perfect.
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