“Why is my reflection someone I don't know?... When will my reflection show who I am inside?” (Mulan, 1998). I feel like these lines have been the epitome of my journey. After being in school for 16.5 years, my journey seemed to lead to a smoky abyss that was excruciatingly silent. I stumbled upon this profession in the final undergrad semesters after being involved as a student leader; this discovery gave me direction and started to put all the disparate pieces together. With this naïve excitement, I began my journey in student affairs.
We’re All Ducks
One of the first things I was told in graduate school is that everyone, seasoned professionals and fellow cohort members, will have a moment(s) when they are a duck: look cool on the outside, but panicking/overwhelmed on the inside like the paddling feet of a duck underwater. This imagery is a regular occurrence for me. I didn’t know the student affairs lingo as a new graduate student and didn’t have a clear direction of my career trajectory. In some ways, I was hoping that moving through graduate school would help me define my career aspirations and clarify my voice. I envied those who knew what set their heart afire and would not let the world quench their voice. As graduation approached, I returned to the misty abyss full of self-loathing, since I did not have a job lined up after graduation. Now, as a new professional, I feel like a duck as I try to maintain a balance between my innate rambunctious and enthusiastic nature with the fortitude and patience needed as a professional staff member. The challenge with being a duck is that the more composed I try to look, the harder it is to feel authentic and safe in spaces because I’ve been positively reinforced to maintain the facade of perfection. To maintain the façade, energy is taken away from opportunities and relationships.
There’s an invisible pressure (or as some may say, a rite of passage) to check things off the list for a “perfect” life, “perfect” career, and professional persona. It’s at the behest of these rites which I tend to sacrifice holistic wellness and an authentic voice. As new professionals and graduate students, we work long hours and are also trying to find ways to adapt to the new expectations of our life. Unlike before, we must seek out community and make ourselves vulnerable by being the new kid when we join professional groups, community leagues/organizations, or connecting with past friends. In many ways, we are like first-year students; we are trying to gain our footing as independent adults while also learning who we are without the safety nets of a structured environment. All while, we are advocating and defining our own wellbeing.
Foundational aspects of developing my wellbeing are recognizing there is not one perfect recipe for wellbeing and a net zero balance is the best form of wellness for me. Just like there are multiple ways to get the answer zero, my energy can be spent/re-filed in perpetual combinations. Rather than pressuring myself to keep such a rigid balance between my different “lives/selves,” I try to make sure the energy I spend is equal to the energy I accumulate within a given period of time. For example, if I know I’ve a busy week(s) ahead, I intentionally schedule small “incentives” to give me the energy boost I need throughout my busy times. These energy boosts may take the form of spreading my meetings throughout the week, prepping a comfort meal for later in the week, or taking the time to reflect or watch a favorite show/movie. They may also include doing something creative like making a new graphic for our department on Canva or attending a professional development experience. Consequently, I’m addressing my wellbeing but am recognizing and honoring the commitments of my busy schedule. Then, when my workload is slower, I can focus on more strategic thinking or time consuming projects as well as reinvest in the things/people that may have been “neglected” when I was preoccupied during my busy season.
Who do I see in my reflection? I see someone who battles with insecurities and maintaining wellbeing; someone who is as aware as she is naive. I see someone who is striving to grow while savoring the joys of life. Whether it be graduate school or launching a career, there is a sense of camaraderie and solitude when simultaneously experiencing a transition shock and fundamental level of insecurity with life. Your reflection can feel like a mask, a list of expectations, or a haunting memory. As you look into your own reflection, remember, wellbeing is achieved when you extend grace and prioritize how you expend/recuperate your energy. As always, you are seen. You are heard. You are important.
Author: Annie Henning is the Program Coordinator for the University Honors Program at Saint Louis University. She enjoys baking, being inspired by Pinterest, and spending time with her family and friends. Annie can be found on LinkedIn or contacted at email@example.com.