For my birthday this year, my gift to myself is this post. I hope that it gives some inspiration and guidance for my next year around the sun. ☀️
I also hope that future me reading this appreciate the effort it took to detangle thoughts and how bold she was to publicly publish this.
Most importantly, I hope the older and wiser Pauline cringes and laughs with tears in her eyes going through each word. I hope she makes fun of how naive she was for very openly wearing her heart on her sleeve to the point it was, ironically, too much.
Last year, I spent my birthday on the beautiful island of Crete.
I swam in crystal clear waters, under blue skies, and had a lot of fine wine with locals that caused a very bad hangover the next day on my flight back to the UK — which was only made better after eating a cheesecake the size of my hand.
Despite the chaotic end to my early twenties, I was optimistic about the next half of my twenties.
I was right to be optimistic! Let’s see why…
I continued my digital nomad adventures and travelled to France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and the west coast of the United States. My heart continued to lead me to Greece, and I even began learning Greek, practising daily with locals and activating a new part of my brain which brought me such joy.
I continue to be proud of my contributions and the collaboration in my team at work!
On my travels around the world, I also met new people at the start of this year, who I now call my close friends.
Generally, I’m so grateful for a wonderful year full of travel, fun and positive experiences and opportunities.
On the other side of the coin though, I’ve had some of the most suffocating days I’ve ever had. There’s so much shame in admitting this, but I’ve never felt like I’ve lost the plot or grip on reality until now. It got to the point where I was losing days of sleep because of anxiety, started to heavily depend on alcohol to cope and experienced my first panic attack in seven years in an apartment alone.
Before I fell deeper into this chaotic downward spiral, I caught myself, just in time. The breaking point hit me when I was crying on the phone on the floor of a full train from Berlin to Amsterdam, with no one around me blinking an eye.
When I checked into my hotel in Amsterdam, my Watch alerted me that my heart rate had been high for the last few hours. I called friends shaking and they urged me to go home as soon as possible, but I couldn’t. In an attempt to calm down, I took a shower only to notice that a chunk of my hair had fallen out.
Still, the next days, I was at a big tech conference, having to show up as the Pauline everyone knows.
You may be wondering how I got so close to the edge. Good question!
My friendship groups call me “grandma”, mostly because I’ve always been considered “more mature” and maybe even a little boring for my age and I would agree. This year cut through this perception; the hard truth is that I still have a lot of growing up, learning and setting boundaries to do.
I wholeheartedly believe that to really learn the important lessons, you need to experience them the hard way. Even then, at the moment, these lessons mean nothing if you are not ready to receive them. I know I wasn’t until I had to stop deluding myself.
I had no idea that accidentally crossing paths with someone would tear me apart into nothing. That’s exactly how they made me feel. Like I was nothing but a fourth choice. I felt so insignificant, small and “not enough” in the presence of this person. They didn’t waste time telling me otherwise.
They filled me with self-doubt in every fibre of my being, from my ability to cook, to do my job, to learn Greek and my capacity to be in a relationship. As I type this, my heart is heavy remembering how I retreated back into my shell with the hope of protecting myself from their harsh words, “You’re so stupid” and the sound of their mocking laugh as I mispronounced yet another Greek word. Despite the shield of armour, the words and flaky actions cut through injuring me for years to come.
In the few months of getting to know this person, I hadn’t dropped so low in confidence, felt so triggered, self-conscious of who I am, unsafe and unlovable.
After the severe emotional damage, there came a point when I realised it wasn’t even about this person anymore. It was all about me. The shame hit, I did not stick up for myself at all and I taught them that this is exactly how to love me; which ironically wasn’t loving me at all.
Last month, I re-booked my flight back to the UK earlier than planned. I knew it was the right thing to do before shipping a big project in the US, but it was further validated by the fact that re-booking was completely free when usually it’d cost an extra arm and leg.
Further validation came from the fact that the sense of peace I felt when I landed in the sunny UK and Athens started to rain. The latter probably means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but I’ve ignored signs like this before and that cost me most of my early twenties.
Family and friends made it their mission to remind me that I’m loved, enough as I am and that I’m magnetic, fun, smart and make spaces better for others. On my travels to London and San Francisco, I crossed paths with strangers who made me feel seen, who appreciated my character and who welcomed me in their spaces.
After a guy at a bar in Athens “jokingly” told me that I’ll never be Greek and other multiple accounts of casual racism including stating that Filipinos are only great cleaners, this was a very refreshing change.
The tiny amount of optimism I had left sparked again.
The 3 recurring messages
1) The only way out is… in
Going fully remote and transitioning to being a nomad was all about me designing my ideal life. Why was I doing this? Because I thought that my ideal life would be one that made me happy.
Ideally, I was close to the ocean, there is a lively city nearby with kind communities and blue skies.
There are many places in the world that fit this criteria, and I’ve spent the last year discovering that. But after a while, this list means nothing. Athens ticked all these boxes, but here I am, alienated, sceptical and burned down like a straw man.
Throughout this whole ordeal, I learned that it doesn’t matter how far I travel across the world, if I’m unsatisfied, unhappy, confused and not accepting of me, it will always follow. Travelling to yet another Greek island with a glass of Caol Ila that I don’t even like “to figure it out” will not help.
The only way out of the wreckage and destruction is to go inwards.
2) You cannot force anything
If you’ve been a reader for a while, you know that I pretty much paved my career path by being obsessed. I knew what I wanted to do and then proceeded to execute the plan to get there. This worked out great, but unfortunately, this isn’t applicable to every aspect of life.
I learned that no matter how much I want a relationship to work out, no matter how much effort I put into it… If the other person doesn’t feel it, they don’t feel it. That’s it. Changed your plans to maximise spending 90 days with them? So what? Became exclusive, rejected every other person for them? Τελία! Who asked? No buts, no ifs. That’s it.
Desperation to force a connection isn’t a good foundation for anything long-term or sustainable. Maybe it was hurt, rejected ego and the complicated feelings of “relationship building is hard so we have to fight this” that made me think it was better than it was.
I’m coming to terms with the fact that love should feel easy as it had always been with my previous loves, not torture. There’s a saying: “If you knew how someone feels about you, you would know. You would not be confused.”
Nothing can be forced.
I’m a chronic people pleaser, and I’m working on it.
Earlier this year, I realised that I completely lacked boundaries in my life. That’s why I say yes to everything, including extra work I know doesn’t fit my plate but I do it anyway, sacrificing other aspects of my life.
This rings true with relationships, sometimes I give so much, am disappointed I don’t get anything back and so continue to give until I burn out. People love to take advantage of this until I’m reduced to a part of myself that I dislike – angry, sad and spilling water all over the place.
To get better, I started a personal notion where I’ve clearly written down all my boundaries.
As things change, I will adjust my boundaries with my permission and no one else’s, and I certainly won’t forget them.
όπου γης και πατρίς (where the earth is, is home)
Maybe the reason I feel like I’m ending my 26th year disappointed in myself is because as always, I put a ridiculously high standard every year to be “even better”.
I read this blog post out loud to my friend on the phone, with a shaky voice and tears in my eyes as I re-lived the painful days when I lost myself. They held the space for me, thanked me for sharing and told me that despite it being a tough one, it was an important chapter to live, because of all the lessons that came with it. They’re right.
No matter what, I will hang on to every moment of happiness where I had tears of joy not sadness in my eyes, stood my ground even if my legs were shaky and made others laugh so much that their stomach hurt.
As I blow out my birthday candles today I wish for all the love and support as I rebuild my confidence and a safe home within myself.
My 26th year left me confused and emotionally deflated. But if there’s one thing I know about me, it’s that I always pick myself back up in my destroyed armour, bruised body and soul and broken heart.
I’m Pauline Narvas, after all.
Of course, as this is a post written by me, I will mention Taylor Swift. Her songs, “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”, “Dear John”, “All Too Well” and “August” are the closest words I’ve found to describe 26. Shoutout to T for putting it into words when I struggled to.