My gap year & its phases

When I started my gap year in Aug 2015, I had some inkling how things might go, having read quite a bit online on how others go about their gap year; however, little did I imagine how long the process could take and how little I could do in this process.

Close to 9 months have since passed and a couple of friends remarked that I have become a rather different person. Others shared that they too would like to take a gap year. And it was during these numerous conversations that I began to process what happened during the past nine months, the different phases that I went through, to be where I am today.

Phase 1: Healing & Decluttering

I walked out of office on my last day with an emptied out emotional tank and a tired engine that could no longer power up. Quite literally, I have reached the end of my stick and I was burnt out. Over the 10 odd years and particularly in the last couple of years, I accumulated enough draining experiences that left their mark, battle scars that remained raw no matter how much time has passed, memories that continued to bring hurt and indignation each time they were recalled. Going through this warehouse of hurt and pain, of disappointment and frustration, took time.

It was a few months down the road before I could begin to reframe each episode, to give the other party benefit of the doubt, to forgive and let go. Forgetting is near impossible because there would also be some trigger to bring the memory back, but I can learn to let go of the associating negative emotions. There was a lot of repair work I needed to do emotionally, and it was not easy. Some days I woke up feeling positive, other days I woke up filled with self-pity.

The tipping point came when I went away to Norway with friends. In the snow-covered landscapes, where I first encountered the power and majesty of nature, I realised for the first time my insignificance. The issues, principles and episodes that I hold dear, do not matter in the face of nature, in the face of life and death. And only then, after 3 months of reflection and an unexpected encounter that became the tipping point, I found emotional healing.

Enjoying sunset

This emotional release also translated into a more physical manifestation as I began to declutter. As I went through my possessions, I discovered that I actually owned a lot of things that I do not need. In the end I cleared out boxes of stuff that included CDs & DVDs that I no longer watched, stationery that I had been hogging but could never bear to use, soft toys that I no longer hugged or cuddle up to, bags that I did not remember buying, and clothes that I no longer wore. What was left was plenty of space and a breath of fresh air. Then I needed to remind myself not to be too quick to buy new stuff to occupy these precious space that I took time to create, and to literally enjoy these new spaces in my life. And this is not simply physical space, it is also an affective and cognitive space. Emotional capacity is building up once again in me.

Honestly, only after this phase did I feel that I was truly starting my sabbatical.

Here, I wish to qualify that what I did, worked for me, but it might not work for you. At the end of the day, how you get there is not as important as actually getting there. Some of my friends travelled extensively during this season and it worked out well for them. However, me being a home-body, travelling would only wear me out more. As such, I would encourage all who is entering a season of rest to determine their own course of action – however unglamorous it may seem – and benefit from making your own choices. After all, I don’t think anyone knows you as well as you would do. It is a season of rest for ourselves, we are permitted to take a break from pleasing others or living up to others’ expectations. *Grin*

Phase 2: Seeking

After creating space in my life, I began to consider my options. As I reviewed my past decisions, I began to better understand myself, that I tended to privilege my head over my heart, that I tended to go with “I don’t mind” rather than “I want to”, which meant that I never really had time and space in my life for things I really wanted to do; and after so many years of operating in the “I don’t mind” realm, I no longer knew what I really wanted to do. And that, took time to uncover. As a Christian, that meant for me a lot of reflection as well as prayer. For my non-Christian friends, some of them started meditating as a way to helping them find their focus… In essence, focus in life was what I was searching for, and it was many months after that I realised that.

Even the process of searching required focus, which I unfortunately lacked. It took a prolonged period of illness that left me unable to do anything other than rest, that enabled me to took extended time off activities to reflect and to pray. With some inkling of my future direction, I began to talk with close friends, with people who knew me long enough, who knew me well enough to get their insights. I also gave myself time to process possibilities and preliminary decisions, to make sure it was not an impulsive or an emotional one.

During this seeking phase, I tended to want to get things done quickly, to rush myself to a resolution. However, it did not quite work out that way. I needed to wait for ideas and thoughts to settle, both in my mind and in my heart, to mull over things so that I can tease out my full reactions… A lot of time was spent waiting, waiting for connecting thoughts to emerge, waiting for true feelings to surface. Maybe because I am not used to tuning in to myself, this phase was difficult for me and took some getting used to.

Partly because of all the distractions that was happening during this period e.g. Chinese New Year and the like, in part also because this was something rather unnatural for me, I took me close to 3 months to get to a phase where I could consider myself having figured things out, more or less.

Phase 3: Making the decision & Waiting

Two things can happen after a season of seeking. I could either continue exploring, unsure of my choice, uncertain if I made the right decision, or I could take the plunge and give it a try. Either way, it calls for a decision to be made and further action to be taken. For me, I chose the latter, pretty sure that I finally hit the nail on its head this time round. I started my job application which led me into a season of waiting. And this was quite a trying period. As I waited to hear from my potential employer, the radio silence brought on a whole slew of questions, questioning my choice, questioning my decision. Honestly, I would not have been able to make it through this season without my ‘village’, friends who have been voice of reason speaking truth and encouragement into my life, friends who prayed with and for me.

We would like to think that taking a sabbatical is essentially a private affair; I realised this was not the case as I entered this third phase. Very often, I was embarrassed by my bummer status, no longer contributing to society; I was in a hurry to get back to work and that anxiety made the waiting to hear from my potential employer even more unbearable. Thankfully, there were always people around me who would encourage me to continue my journey for greater clarity, who felt that I needed more rest before I return to work. Someone (you know who you are) even suggested I take another year off. And I appreciated all these support because they helped put things in perspective and definitely lessened the guilt I felt.

As someone who does not deal with emotions very well, having people around for emotional support was certainly needful, even though I didn’t realise it till then.

Phase 4: Establishing healthy routines

Now, 9 months after I embarked on this journey, I have reached the point of establishing new and hopefully healthier routines for myself, even though it is true that old habits die hard. For me, adopting a healthy attitude towards work needs much cultivation and that begins with finding my professional focus and then the courage as well as tact to say ‘No’. It also means adjusting my working hours – giving up my penchant for a nocturnal lifestyle – to office hours and learning to work within limits, setting knock off time for myself, particularly now that I am doing freelance projects at home.

Much thought also goes into healthy diets and exercise habits that are sustainable after I return to work, making space for hobbies and people, as well as space for myself in my calendar. If there is anything I learnt over the past 9 months, that would be the gift of being able to waste time e.g. walk around my room ten times, without feeling guilty. Nothing happens during these moments, but these are the most restful waking hours I ever experienced, and that to me is immensely precious and enjoyable, something I hope to retain as I enter a new season at work. Very often, it is from these blank spaces that bring forth my best ideas and pieces of work.

I have yet to truly figure out my life or my life purpose, but at the very least, I have identified my professional focus and charted a course of action for myself, for the next few years. The process started during this gap year has to continue as I move through life, but perhaps not at the same level of intensity as I could afford during this very privileged year of exploration.

On a final note, I must clarify that these were not really 4 neat phases, and there were definitely overlaps and revisiting an earlier phase as situations call for. For instance, in the decision-making phase, more old wounds were surfaced, and it took time and effort on my part to deal with those wounds before I could move forward. I am thankful that I am ending this gap year with greater clarity and more space in my life, both of which are valuable as ends in themselves. 

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