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Left Behind? Or A Different Way

14 March 2023:

This is embarrassing to write about but as I've mentioned before, writing, both in private and on my personal social media page, has been significantly helping me cope with my triggers and healthily process my emotions. Last week I visited Maryland to attend a conference for work. And while I enjoyed my trip as it was productive and a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with people, a very small part of me felt emotions that I didn't expect to feel: I felt sadness and jealousy. As I ran into some of my peers, specifically those who had graduated the intern program we had done together or were just a few months shy of graduation, I saw the passion they possessed. The excitement for their jobs. The uncertainty and angst about what lied ahead and the desire to be what that organization needs--to contribute and make a positive impact. I heard about their accomplishments and while I initially felt joy for them, I later found myself feeling sad--sad for the old me, then jealous of what they have.

Many of them are months away from starting their next assignments as Directors of Operations (DO) or are serving in the role now. Several of them are looking forward to attending upcoming conferences for work, are in leadership positions that the AF and our careerfields value and they each possess the skills, talent and drive to truly make a positive impact on the organizations and the people that they will soon lead and are leading now. As I looked at them and listened to them or heard through the chatter what others were doing, I saw shades of my old self. "I use to want this" I thought. I use to WANT to be a DO. I use to want to lead a large Squadron of Airmen and direct a mission forward. I was on that track. I wanted to do the things I was told would help develop me to become a Commander one day. I once prioritized completing the experiences I have been taught by Senior Leaders that I need to have that will make me competitive for key leadership positions and promotion. I was very competitive for this. What happened to me? How did I fall and get left behind?

While my initial response to these thoughts were, "Kristin, there is more than one way to develop as a leader. There is more than one way to lead....You prioritized your health. You prioritized your values. It's OK to trust yourself on this decision." By the time I went to work this morning, these internal messages evaporated and I was really upset. I cried in the car and asked myself, "What did I do?! What happened to me? Why did I allow myself to fall so far off course? I thought I didn't care about this stuff anymore but I do care. It feels like everyone else, everyone I did the program with are moving on, moving up, and doing things that will help them advance. School selections. Leadership jobs. And yet, I am moving backwards. I am making choices that are causing me to have less access to, and be less competitive for developmental opportunities. I am being left behind. What am I doing?"

This past October (2022), I was able to "place bids" (apply) for potential jobs that would be available this summer (2023). I was fresh out of my intensive outpatient program, no longer suicidal, but still in the mindset that nobody can be trusted and a medical retirement from the AF is likely my best option. Through therapy, I discovered that my top values right now are trust, connection, self care, authenticity, and autonomy/freedom and I was not confident that my career in the AF was going to allow me to be in alignment with these values based off of everything that led to me getting to a mentally ill state. I didn't see racism, sexism, work toxicity, high operational demands, or my ability to cope with it going away or getting better anytime soon so I figured since I still have a service commitment, I might as well try to do something fun and for me. Go somewhere where I can position myself to have the best prospects to travel the world with my husband, and hopefully enjoy my life (actions in alignment with my self-care, connection, and autonomy values). All of my job bids were based on location; this was the first time I ever did this in my life as I traditionally valued the mission, the opportunity for career development/advancement and servant leadership impact. This time, I didn't want any large scale leadership jobs, despite me being in the rank where leading larger scale organizations is the goal. I CRINGED at the idea of experiencing anything that was similar to what I had been through this past year and the thought of doing anything for another human being that was not prompted by me, or doing anything for a person or organization I didn't trust, made my entire body feel extreme rage.

As I sat in the car today reflecting, I started to go down the track of what could have been done differently to change this outcome. "Maybe if I hadn't of been a Flight Commander so many times as a Company Grade Officer and dealt with so many stressful cases, maybe I wouldn't have gotten burnt out so fast... maybe if I didn't complete my masters degree during my Lieutenant years and used that time to enjoy my life.... maybe if I didn't over calculate things so much and could just trust my leaders without worrying of their intentions; trust that they will take care of me without me feeling that I have to still find a way to take care of myself.... maybe if I hadn't of led so many extra-curricular activities for the Squadrons, Groups, Wings, Bases, and Agencies I was a part of... maybe if I hadn't come to Korea...maybe if I didn't have so much ambition...." Then I ventured into the things that were outside of my control, "Maybe if I wasn't consistently placed in jobs above my paygrade for extended periods of time I wouldn't be so burnt out.... maybe if my family didn't fall apart last year.... maybe if all of the stress from the pandemic and racial injustices and triggers from past traumas wouldn't affect me so much.... maybe then I could have handled it. Maybe I could have been like everyone else and stayed the course and kept pushing through." My pattern of using, would, could, and should of statements that only steer me into a deeper hole of sadness and no longer serve me.

Today when I got home from work, I went for a run to further process my emotions. While running, I finally chose to confront this very real truth: when I made the decision about my next assignment, I LISTENED to my BODY and IT'S needs. And while its a truth that I was reluctant to listen to as it is a part of my character to push through (hence me becoming hospitalized), my body could not take prioritizing someone or something else before me. My body NEEDED me to choose myself. It needed me to choose a job that would not make it feel like I was committing myself to martyrdom; that it could get something back for itself, its healing too. Despite what others see or believe, my mind and body had done enough self-sacrifice for the betterment of others. It needed me to pour back into it, and allow myself to grow as a leader in that way.

As I finalize this post what started with me writing in frustration, I am concluding with a sense of calm and peace. I find it difficult sometimes to stand firm in my decisions. I question them when I compare myself. I compare even when I don't mean to. I wonder if the path I choose will lead me to "success" then I question, how do I even want to define "success" for me? But processing the emotions help me come back to my center and while my fear of being left behind is real, my decision to choose a job that was better for the state of health I was in at the time the decision was made and personal goals was NOT made from fear. It was made from my values. I want to trust. I want connection. These are two things I value most. But at the time of my decision, I did not have enough of these two items in myself and the AF as a whole to choose differently than how I chose. Trust and connection within myself and in others in the AF community is still a work in progress for me. While choosing to walk in alignment with my values can be a very scary thing as it may result in doing an uncommon thing, I am learning that it may not mean that I am being "left behind" as I originally feared, but more so that I am learning to lead in a "different way."

Photo: From the 2011 Bataan Death March Memorial Marathon in Los Cruces, New Mexico. This photo is of me and a few of my friends about 8 miles into the 26.2 mile ruck march. During the ruck we went through gravel, sand, road, and mountainous terrain. There were parts we ran, walked, and stopped for rest and replenishment. We stuck together and helped each other through it all. Looking back on it I see the similarities between life and leadership; both are journey's that require different paces to move at each phase. It reminds me that it's ok to go at it in all of it's many phases, in a different kind of way.


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