How to Feel

Are you all packed?

When do you leave?
Too soon.

More and more of my recent conversations have started like this.

Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has expressed excitement for me, which I truly do appreciate. I have a handful of friends also leaving Singapore, all of whom have been here longer than I have; everyone is full of similarly mixed emotions. There’s nostalgia, uncertainty, anticipation, relief, excitement, a spirit of adventure. Some have concrete plans about what’s coming while others are still figuring that out. Everyone has made the choice to leave, but the reactions to leaving differ. This has me reflecting on how I make and respond to my own choices.

For as long as I’ve been consciously aware of decision-making, I’ve made choices that take others into consideration before thinking of myself. I believe this started when I was about 11 years old and my parents separated. While I wasn’t technically supposed to have a choice about spending every Tuesday night and every other weekend at my dad’s apartment, sometimes I did have the option to stay with my mum. That was on particularly bad days with a lot of tears, for some reason or another. I remember flicking through a collection of colorful hair elastics that I kept together on a ring chanting, “I go, I don’t go” in a perverse version of daisy petals and “he loves me, he loves me not”.

The last elastic rarely made the decision for me, but it did tell me how I felt about the choice I’d made.

I knew that a sense of relief on the last flick meant that there was congruence between the elastic’s answer and the real decision, while a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach told me I was secretly hoping for the opposite outcome. Sometimes I felt nothing, which was even worse.

The difficulty arose when my feelings were discordant with what I imagined my dad was feeling when I raged and stormed over whether or not to spend time with him. It was a battle between choosing to make him happy (though I usually let my fury make itself very obvious, which likely had exactly the opposite result) or to make myself happy (though I often dissolved in tears anyway because I knew that I was hurting my dad, so I really wasn’t helping myself at all).

I knew that I had a lot of emotions, but I didn’t know how to balance them. I didn’t know how to handle so many conflicting emotions at once.

My discomfort with cognitive dissonance led me to avoid acknowledging my feelings. For much of middle and high school, I stopped making decisions based on my own whims so as to avoid rejection, disappointment, or fear if my choices didn’t align with others’ wishes. It was easier to consider “What will make them happy?” than “What do I want?”. I felt safer avoiding desires and expectations than admitting what I was really feeling, often because I didn’t know what that was.

Though my strongest desire is still for others to be happy, the biggest (and healthiest!) change has been considering myself at all. I am allowed to want, hope, and seek out. I am allowed to say no, change course, and propose alternatives. Considering myself has also meant embracing the conflicting emotions that I’ve recently been experiencing on a very regular basis.

I have given myself permission to admit that I am very sad to leave Singapore and both excited and nervous about returning to the US. I am excited for the next chapter, adventure, and experience. I look forward to the unknowns that lie ahead. At the same time, I have misgivings and feel apprehension and frustration. I dream about teaching internationally again.

At 11, I didn’t know that there isn’t one “right” emotion for everyone involved. There isn’t one way to feel. At 26, I have come to accept that it’s about finding a balance. The scale might tip depending on the day or even the hour, but that’s okay.

Of everything I’ve learned during my year in Singapore, how to be open and honest with myself, and by extension with those around me, might just be the most important.


2 thoughts on “How to Feel”

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