On digital invisibility and its relevance in a sabbatical year
After a twelve-year career in a global corporation, I left everything to redesign life and work. This article is part of a series called THE SABBATICAL PAPERS, documenting my journey.
In more than ten years abroad, no one at Starbucks has ever been able to write my full name on a cup: Donatella.
There was “Donna Pella”, as a Spanish girl called me mistaking me for a “señora”. There was “Donatelle”, a French interpretation. Or “Donteller”, which quickly became my secret services code name. “Donetta” even. I never even bothered asking why.
So I just gave in to a name that could be easily grasped, and created “Donna”, the American version of myself. And a way to get my matcha tea on time.
One day instead, a nice lady over the counter passed me the cup.
There was “Dona”, sharpie-d on it — the only alternative version to my name my homies in Italy would call me.
For the first time, my name was spelled right.
Just in time for my six thousand miles flight back home to Italy, to never being American again.
A year ago, I left life as I knew it.
For more than a decade, I had been a tireless corporate champion.
I was busy being the Director of Public Relations for a global brand.
It was a time in my life in which I was nominated often, appointed, named, hashtagged, @-ed. I had known about exposure. To people, to media, to public. I have been a force behind all the products and campaigns we got to launch.
With time, I got accustomed to recognizing my name when I saw it and that usually had a lot to do with having a job title next to it.
The more I’d accumulate, the more I’d feel accomplished.
This was the success wheel as I learned it.
Technically, I had what others would call the socially accepted “everything”.
However, I started feeling at all times, as if I was late for something. And that something never really came.
I used to wake up or not sleep with the urge for what I could no longer find in the current life map.
A longing for life things, like intimacy, simplicity, kindness. Exposure to reality, raw and unprepared. I had been a planner, I needed to be an improviser. Take one step and adjust, one step and adjust, trusting that gradually, change will emerge.
I turned into two people, co-existing in a hostile mental environment. One that would continue accumulate and get praised, and the other that felt emotional pressure to change something and get real.
I would find myself crying on planes every time we would took off and abandon soil.
A distance was being created between my current life and life as I suspected it should have felt.
It will perhaps suggest the mood of those times if I tell you that except for drugs, I started trying everything to get closer to understanding why I was feeling that way and who was really behind all of this (me).
Panic attacks, crystal baths, sky map readings, leadership coaching, therapy, creative courage coaching, storytelling coaching, tattoos. You name it.
I had a growing and growing realization I had been living as if there was a world to beat out there, while boiling inside me was a strong feeling there was a world to serve instead.
I just didn’t know yet how to change my mindset to get there.
I considered the only possible solution to be a terrifying act of resistance against my previous conditioning.
Who am I without a title, a curriculum, a portfolio, a rolodex and how can I exist from a place of deep essence?
And so, for two years before making the jump, I planned and prepared for a steering maneuver: I saved money, I quit my job, a twelve year career and came home to Italy.
I told myself that if I wouldn’t find any story in this journey, then this act would be my story.
My identity shifted overnight from a corporate career obsessed and restless expat to America to a self-disrupting “sabbatican” coming back to my country of birth, without a formal job, having just a whole bunch of uninterrupted time with myself, naked of a status or a fixed amount of money every month.
As I was moving from one life to another, I realized for the first time I was more alone that I thought in this.
As I announced to Americans I quit my job, I received a long and loud stream of “congratulations!” in return.
At the opposite of that, Italians reacted to the news faking a serene reaction, while secretly panicking. Some of them were convinced I was joking and even asked me:
“Tell me the truth, you have another job lined up and you don’t want to tell me”.
Every time someone would ask me
“So, what do you do?”
I would freeze in a reassuring smile, and keep calm while grappling with anxiety before answering
“I am on a sabbatical”.
The “Global-director-for-a-big-company-abroad” answer on repeat wasn’t going to save me this time from their “Oh…”.
I realized quite immediately that naked of a clearly defined work identity, a piece of me was forever gone in the eyes of others.
For me, I was just happy I didn’t have an occupation, so that I could do the real (emotional) work to defrost and get closer to my core.
But in rebelling against the previous conditioning, I underestimated how deep the conditioning had penetrated my spirit, so much so that I had become the conditioning itself.
I was so attuned to making myself useful and eternally busy that after a few weeks of the new routine, I transformed my allegedly time off into a job.
If I wasn’t productive, or demonstrating that I was, I was afraid I would become invisible.
I scheduled studio hours in the morning (anything from reading, writing, studying), makers hours in the afternoon (errands, manual work, distractions from the mind), at least two meetings or conference call with friends per week, and carefully bullet pointed impossible goals (finish one full book in a week, meditate every day…).
In the middle of January, I filled the living room wall with a bunch of post-its that were my masterplan for transformation. I would split the year into themes, themes into months, months into activities and activities into next steps.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a keen ambassador for discipline. I believe that without that we are not really able to achieve freedom. Nothing can really transform within us if we are not aware of what we are living while we are living it.
But if discipline really works for me, what was not working was the propelling motivation behind this first attempt at tackling the sabbatical journey.
I was over planning and giving myself a job, because I was afraid of losing worth and credibility if I had nothing visible to show I was busy enough, doing it right.
Quitting and altering everything then, wasn’t really enough to spark a change in itself.
I began observing more closely.
I started asking myself if maybe there should be a balance between being OUT-visible and IN-visible in order to cut the noise and get to true self-discovery?
For something to be declared invisible, a sizable amount of the gaze of others has to be involved. The inability to be seen is often associated with the inability to be seen by others, therefore until we remain within others’ field of view, we are visible.
Nowadays, it’s enough to be on someone’s screen to exist.
Our accountability to show up in life is now reduced from being in the proximity of a subject in the flesh to live in a mere 3.5 inches in the virtual space of others, without even breaking a sweat.
Working on becoming visible to our inner self (IN) should have the same priority as working on fabricating visibility to the outer world (OUT), and yet is still something we postpone indefinitely, allured by the showcase of benefits the latter can bring — social media likes, expensive products to prove status, easier stories we can tell others about our success, whatever that might be, never really taking into account the emotional taxes those benefits bring with them.
Are we ready to commit the same amount of effort when it comes to being truly visible to ourselves?
Organizational psychologist, researcher, and best-selling author Dr. Tasha Eurich, makes a valuable discovery in her book “Insight”.
She says there are two types of self-aware people, the “introspector” and the “pleaser”.
The introspector is someone who has done a lot of inner work to know who she is, but is not really aware of how she comes across to others.
At the opposite, the pleaser is someone who thrives in being seen positively from others, but doesn’t know what is in her best interest or has lost sight of it.
I wasn’t sure who I was on this spectrum.
Did I know myself enough to be able to discern who I was from how I was coming across to others? Or was I following the thread of what others loved about me to please them? Even with my life (and work) choices?
As these daunting questions hit me like a thunder bolt, I understood that the part that was more activated within me was the one busy pleasing an audience.
I now had a choice. I had to remove whatever was reinforcing the public chatting in my forehead and nourish the fear of losing that with the fear itself.
Perpetrate a radical act of invisibility.
De-power its paralyzing effects, my fear to become the invisible one, by becoming invisible myself.
In real life, this superpower belongs to superheroes. But in the digital life, it is just one deleting-the-app click way.
So, I held tight to not being on the market for a while, risked losing my “tribe” and put myself on a social media diet of no more posting or checking everybody else’s life for a while.
Both things I have executed mercilessly and without second thoughts, even though it caused deep tears of self-pity at times, remembered from high school, when friends did not call you to go to a party but invited everybody else.
It is somewhat absurd that this pausing-the-gram is remotely considered brave at all. Or that digital leaps can reflect in real life tantrums.
All I know is that the feeling is absolutely real.
When we think about any new application of technology, it’s all about the now.
Nobody announces today a product that is going to launch in a two-years time, because in tech, two years equals a full ecologic era. Digital transformation is so fast paced, we discuss the next upgrade faster than the current existence of things.
For a human to fall off the digital grid for an entire year (and more), it generates the same panic a product would feel if it could talk.
Will I be out of date by then? Would the world would have surpassed me making me irrelevant?
The good news is, for how fast a tech revolution is, the human one does not quite follow the same pace.
The reason I can say that is because one year after, as I reconnect with the digital world to share my experience, the real world hasn’t really changed.
We are still trying to understand why we are here, we are still asking ourselves how can we be loved and there is no technology sufficiently developed to help us see clearly within ourselves.
Soon after stopping the posting game, I have been through big strokes of fear and “what-have-I-done”-s, anxious about the irreversibility of a situation, and not just any situation, but a self-induced one.
What happens if I am forgotten?
The best antidote I have found to counteract this question has been to ask another one.
Do you remember when you were so invisible to yourself that it took you years to find a new path out of the funk?
Writer Pankaj Mishra in the New York Times, writes in her review of Zadie’s Smith collection of essays, “Changing my mind: the occasional essay”:
“Far from floating free in a state of unbelonging, most people are trapped in predetermined social and political positions; they must act within the history that surrounds them. The possession of multiple selves and voices does not seem to be helping — and may even be inhibiting”.
When “I like you” gets confused with “I see you”, there is a risk we become distracted by the safe rush of adrenaline that comes with a digital insta-heart and we stop expressing all our possible selves.
By the simple act of editing my life for the Internet public, a part of me became invisible to myself because I was editing it out.
Its limiting story made me feel watched while I was stretching my muscles for change, a vulnerable time in which“to be liked” can be an utterly dangerous pursuit.
Here I am, on a mountain, telling you “I am on top”, but without telling you why
(my strong self, vulnerable AF)
Here I am, being artistic and showing you I understand culture
(my smart self, afraid of being an artist)
Here I am, happy and smiley on a roller coaster
(my shiny self, exhausted)
As I was embarking this new journey I had decided the only person I would want to stop being invisible to was myself.
I went on full offline mode, met people in real life, spoke to only eight to ten close friends and family for months, allowed myself to marinate in boredom and listened to my body making decisions based on desires and not necessity.
I simply did life as I remembered it. And by telling myself the truth without interruptions from the streaming, I was finally able to embrace my emotional and biological reactions to the anxiety of not been seen the way I used to.
This led to a year of transformational experiments, like shadowing a plant doctor, writing love letters at the Juliet Club, building community projects, enrolling in writing school and volunteering. The intensity of each of them I can still taste in my mouth.
I have collected words and photographs, growing them passionately until they were ready to be shared, just like one would do with a garden.
When everyone else in the room is screaming “me me me”, we invisibly compete all the time for a survival that was moved away from reality and into a sphere that is separate from what life is really about.
In the next twenty-four hours, how many of us would be able to say “See you unexpectedly next time” to someone?
I wouldn’t know exactly what to ask of you or of me to gradually shift from current state to another social media state, but it is with a matter-of-factly attitude that I state the urgency for more intimate clans, the ask for new recruiting mechanisms and for better experiences of place.
A valuable path to real self-innovation is to disappear.
This was my experience.
When this happens, life rebuffs, the forgotten takes on a leading role all of a sudden and we create time to learning how to see, again.
We come alive when the left unseen, the overlooked, the side story comes back and surprises us.
Not when the visible keeps harassing us with its right to exist before we do.
If paying attention to myself instead of myself-as-perceived-by-digital-others increased my chances of evolving during an intense year of change, I cannot ignore that real innovation also requires a constant amount of showing up to fear.
Not just once.
In her brilliant and excruciatingly real essay “Exposure”, writer Olivia Sudjic explores this topic in its deepest corners.
“While the desire to protect oneself is natural, to try and hide away altogether and thereby limit all occasions for risk seems like a self-inflicted wound” — she writes.
She brings to the table the example of exposure therapy, a technique used in the treatment of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in which the therapist creates a safe environment to expose the subject to what they fear (and avoid) usually through representations (videos, images, articles).
The hope is that by confronting our fear repeatedly and over time, our brain learns how to regulate its response.
This is to say that one way to treat anxiety of any kind, is to accept that the fear that provokes it is in fact “evolutionary and unavoidable”.
As per my fear of becoming invisible then, while I acknowledge its existence and learn about its consequences, I also challenge myself to unlearn it by exposure.
And it is by publishing myself again that I accept to be aware of the digital others in a new way.
Social media is this ambiguous tool we had been given to show up in the world.
Except it’s the things that are in our face too often that quickly become the things we forget about faster.
The same way we can get positive effects from protecting our self from the tool, we are also challenged to find new modalities for connections.
Real innovation requires self-observation and attention first.
When attention provokes anxiety, innovation also comes from choosing what we can do with it to unearth positive energy to re-design our system, over and over again.