This essay explores the journey I have embarked on after difficult experiences and learning from those around me. It’s a constant conversation I have with friends and colleagues, and by sharing, I aim to leave a record of how many detours we can take on our road to peace with ourselves and our communities.
Peace is an Everyday Practice
Looking for inner peace is not only a necessity, it is one of the best gifts to society one can give.
Peacebuilding has become the center of my work; from an internship in Cote d’Ivoire that showed me the challenges of violence prevention at the height of the 2011 crisis, to my latest full-time work as a field observer in the Colombia Peace agreement in 2016 between FARC Rebels and the Colombian Government. In either my journalism or political analysis, peace has been centered in it.
Although my career has progressed, I have also taken a look back and tuning with myself has been one of the hardest tasks and necessary tasks.
A good friend of mine, while working for the Red Cross, once said something that has stuck with me ever since: “This sort of job confronts you with the best bits of yourself and the worst bits.” And over the past couple of years I have understood that seeking peace within one’s self is one of the best gifts that can be given to society, regardless of what industry one works in.
“Self-knowledge stems from a philosophical question and it might sound cliché, but knowing your strengths and weaknesses is key,” says Paola Valladares, a psychologist with experience working in art therapy and with development workers. “Getting to know yourself better is essential as our outside world is rather a mirror. We see the world through our perceptions, our biases.”
Whether you work in troubleshooting mode and your job does not yield direct results, everyday life can get to us. When we do not take time to tune in with ourselves, by being unaware of our flaws and virtues, it hurts those around us.
In my last job in Colombia, I was so hurt by a former supervisor – who showed signs of PTSD himself – that without even realizing it, he brought his inner chaos and spilled it on our small, isolated team. I went on and replicated this: I was angry, defensive and paranoid, jumping to the worst conclusion about my colleagues. Over time, that damage affected relationships and eventually my own cognitive health, as I was diagnosed with acute anxiety. As the months went by, I started reflecting on my reactions. I eventually left the job to reflect on my life prior to the pandemic.
For Valladares, scenarios like this are key to start that journey of exploration and self-knowledge. “Asking yourself, what is this situation teaching me? Why is this getting to me? Has something similar happened before?” are good questions to start.
The journey is certainly not the easiest and it is a lifelong learning process. The moment I acknowledged my moodiness and how I can turn into my ugly self with colleagues, I felt the world around me changed. I remembered one of the lessons this work taught me, through one of the strongest women I met. “I chose love to heal from war, because bitterness was not the way,” one woman told me as I was saying goodbye. She´s been hosting Venezuelan migrants and refugees in her home that has become a safe space for those who have been victims of Gender Based Violence.
As an individual, self-knowledge and self-awareness is one of the most meaningful contributions to peace. It’s not exotic nor glamorous, it is an everyday practice to choose peace by getting to know the good and the bad of oneself. It does not end with just completing a task.
Some aspects I have noticed in these past few months and that former colleagues and I have agreed on are:
Running away from oneself could be counterproductive
I’ve chosen to work in the intersections of two fields notorious for travel and over the years I’ve noticed how easy it seems for many of us to take a new post, a new job and move away from our support network. There’s nothing wrong with that if wanderlust is your drive and you have a goal to visit 60 countries by the time you turn 50. If you check in with yourself, however, and notice this as a coping mechanism, it might come back to bite you. The fresh routine, new places and people wear off and those problems emerge. Checking in is always important. Valladares has noticed this in her work with NGO´s in our native Ecuador, “Curiosity for other cultures and to learn other dynamics is great. There is curiosity leading somewhere new, but one has to be aware that if the purpose to serve becomes more of a routine, it could be an escape mechanism. What from? Or I might be looking for something I am not even aware of?”
Listening to yourself is so important
Speaking of checking in, listening to oneself can become the most tedious task. Over 4 years between my journalism periods and humanitarian work, I started packing on weight as a coping mechanism. Eating food anxiously became my release from the isolation and lack of control of my working conditions. As soon as I left the last job, I started noticing I reached out for sugar and alcohol much less and I must say, it was a pleasant surprise.
Listening to your gut can be so painful; I knew I had to leave the last jobs for months, but I postponed it with training and travel. I would often buy clothes and dine out a lot as a way to distract myself. The only things I got in the process were more of a brain fog and underperformance. In this case, losing my stable livelihood was terrifying and going back to freelance has been far from easy, yet it was something I owed to myself at that moment and that time.
It seemed crazy to my friends, to leave a good and fulfilling job behind. By no means am I following the conventional pattern a woman in her 30’s should. But ultimately I will be with myself for the rest of my life and that is the only thing I am certain of. As long as you pursue what you want to do for yourself, whatever that is, that is the most authentic gift you can give to yourself.
What is Self-Love anyway?
By this I am not advocating for Avo-on-toast brunches, expensive holidays and complicated skin care routines. For some people, exercising works, for others reading a book is their “off-limits” time they value. Whatever works for you – as long as it is an activity that won’t be self-harming in excess such as alcohol consumption on compulsive buying – is great. No one has a recipe to dictate what you enjoy; it is part of your journey to discover it and when you find it, do it as much as you can.
This subject is particularly tricky to Valladares. “’You must love yourself, have a great self-esteem. How dare you to not be happy?’ seems to be society´s take on this. Social media influences a lot with that tendency to show happy moments only. The danger is that by living only those happy moments, there is not space for the rest of your emotions, the ones you might not want to share nor post. It is an era of self-love that must exist. It is right to love yourself, but there is a shadow side to each one of us that we must embrace as part of an authentic self-love practice.”
Validate not being ok
Another self-harming toxic behavior that I noticed over time was the perspective of: “why am I not ok when other people are worse off than I am?” One woman once told me how the community leaders were taking a toll of the survivors of violence and she described them in a way similar to my colleagues and I: short tempered, easily angered, trouble sleeping. I remember wondering how I had taken their resilience for granted as they were always so kind. Her response was another lesson I now carry with me, “Saying don’t be sad because someone is worse off than you is like putting a limit on your happiness because other people are happier.” While managing our emotions effectively is one of the hardest tasks for any human, observing our emotions and what triggers them is a huge step. Burying them under a pile of “good vibes only” is only a shortcut for a massive outburst.
“You are human after all. You are allowed to empathize and feel. Give yourself permission to feel and take that guilt away. That my reality is different from another individual does not mean I am completely alien to it. There is a connection. It might not be worse for me, but I am aware,” mentions Valladares as she explains how often this scenario plays out and how it shows an underlying stigma to mental health.
“As with visiting a physician, people tend to get professional help as a last resort and often, people prefer not to tell others they went to the psychologist. It is hard to accept you are not ok and sometimes there is a sense of failure when reaching out to a psychologist. It is ok not to manage your emotions, to feel disoriented. I always tell my patients the tools are within them, we are just using a torch so they can find their way back.”
During these pandemic times, the impact of one individual’s action on our society is more present that ever. Being kind to ourselves on our journey is the best gift for our community by embracing the good, the bad and the ugly. “One side the pandemic brought, is allowing people to acknowledge when they are not ok and to feel that way. Because to some extent, we might all have had an issue.”
PEACE BUILDER BIOGRAPHY
Carolina Loza Leon is a freelance journalist and political analyst focused on peacebuilding, human rights, and foreign policy reporting between Ecuador and Colombia.
DAILY PEACE ACTION
Observation: instead of judging myself for feeling a certain way, I have a notebook where I write my thoughts and feelings and scan my body to see how I react when I am happy or sad. I decided to take the time and observe and learn about myself. Try it with me.