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Learning to Embrace the Present

Submitted by Lori Conlan February 22, 2022

As students we reach many thresholds: graduating high school, getting into college, getting into graduate school or medical school, completing our postdoctoral fellowship, residence, or internship. Many times, we spend a major portion of our time planning for the next threshold.

From threshold to threshold, I always knew what my next step was, until I reached my postdoctoral fellowship. I started my postdoc thinking I would be running a research lab in the future, but while my research advanced, my hesitation to join academia increased. This left me wondering what my next step would be. If it was not academia, what would I do instead?

Letting go of my anticipated future plan of becoming a principal investigator and not knowing my next steps filled me with anxiety. All my life, I knew what was next, and I had clear goals in mind. For the first time, I was stuck in a liminal space (the space between the end of one life stage and the beginning of the next) with no clear direction.

It was in this time of uncertainty that I reached out to the OITE Wellness advisor, other health care professionals, and mentors. They introduced me to a set of tools that helped me let go of the anxiety of not knowing what the next step/goal would be and embrace the present.

  • Explore uncomfortable emotions
    Sometimes we avoid uncomfortable emotions, such as frustration, sadness, jealousy, and disappointment. It’s important to recognize that these feelings are natural and are telling us important information about our environment or circumstance. For me, acknowledging and naming my emotions allows me to place some distance between myself and the emotion. For example, saying “Something in me is feeling sad,” lets me then question “Why?” After introspection, I place one hand on my heart and take a deep breath. Furthermore, with the help of therapy (in particular cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy), I learned to be in tune with my emotions, comfortable or uncomfortable ones, and to be kind to myself.
  • Use available resources and set realistic goals
    Schedule meetings with career advisors and mentors. Informational interviews are also a great way to learn about various career paths. I was nervous and hesitant to set up informational interviews or reach out, but when I did, these meetings pointed me to my future direction.
    Our values, interests, and priorities change over time. Conducting a personal value assessment can highlight careers that will be fulfilling and adequate for your career stage.
  • Enjoy the journey and live in the present
    We tend to want to rush through the ambiguity of the liminal space, but I encourage you to embrace this space, sit in the now and be open to the possibilities that are available in this time of uncertainty. Two tools that help me be present:
    • Gratitude Journaling: Daily making a list of what I am grateful for. There are now many apps for this.
    • Mindfulness: Join a mindfulness meditation group.

While it is important to make plans and set the next goals, remember:

Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans

        – John Lennon.

Guest Blogger: Andrea Naranjo Erazo, PhD: Co-director, NIH Academy on Health Disparities and Research Ethics Coordinator, OITE
Part of the “Voices of OITE

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