For Diplomats Who Feel Uprooted: A Website to Call Home

Phil McAuliffe, an Australian midcareer diplomat who has created a website, the Lonely Diplomat, for fellow professionals to “genuinely reconnect with ourselves, with those around us and with the communities in which we live,” he said.

“We diplomats have a strange life,” says Phil McAuliffe. “It’s hard for others to truly understand.”

After serving in posts around the world, he ought to know. Now this veteran of the diplomatic life has decided to go public.

Meet diplomacy’s new spokesperson, champion and interpreter, a k a the Lonely Diplomat.

Twenty years after beginning a public-service career on behalf of his country, Australia, McAuliffe has found a way to voice his isolation and desire for connection, using a website he launched six months ago. The site, with followers on Instagram and Facebook, also invites thoughts from others about the life of the diplomatic spouse — McAuliffe’s current status.

Five themes anchor the site: What it’s like to be a diplomat, deal with the competitiveness, find needed resilience, cope with loneliness and form connections. “It’s important that we genuinely reconnect with ourselves, with those around us and with the communities in which we live,” McAuliffe says. “This is a process that we cannot do alone all the time, even though we may really want to do it privately, while keeping the appearance of being able to do it all.”

The website is flavored with self-awareness and wry humor. “We get so busy that we can easily lose sight of who we are, those people important to us and the things that make us, well, us,” McAuliffe writes. “It’s not an ideal environment to have your midlife crisis, is it?”

Messages like this resonate. As one Instagram follower put it, “[T]hanks for putting into words some of the feeling and emotions that clearly I’m not alone in feeling.”

As creator and chief content provider for the site, McAuliffe hopes to speak for countless other diplomats and diplomatic spouses. He and his wife, who currently serves at the Australian High Commission in Wellington, New Zealand, have taken turns accepting posts. Besides Wellington, he and his wife have been posted in Ho Chi Minh City, Seoul and Caracas. They are also raising a family.

As McAuliffe puts it, “I’m determined to not let life pass me by.”

The site offers a view of the diplomat’s life as rarely seen but often experienced, with frank observations about the job and the expat experience. And you don’t have to be a diplomat to relate to topics like, say, self-doubt. “We all have the voice of a 13- or 14-year-old in us,” McAuliffe says, “and we still think someone, like a lifeguard, is going to blow a whistle and say, oi, you, get out of the pool.”


 

 

The site offers reading recommendations, including self-help books, and a forum, called the Lounge, where readers can share observations about themselves and where they are located. Based on social media analytics, most readers are women.

“I want to dig down further about why the message about work-life balance, about the pressures of being everything to everybody all the time, might resonate more with women,” McAuliffe says. These are not women’s issues, he points out, but contemporary challenges facing men and women alike.

The Lonely Diplomat has attracted readers in roughly 160 countries, making McAuliffe a little less lonely in the process. “The feedback has been in fits and starts, from a ‘like’ on social media to ‘Oh, my god, you’ve crawled into my head,’ ” he said in a wide-ranging conversation with PassBlue.

Here are lightly edited excerpts from that conversation and the site:

It’s Hard to Relax

You’re always the diplomat, even in social situations. You’re always on, and always representing something bigger than yourself. Whether you’re posted to Kabul, Canberra, New York or Geneva, there are stresses living away from home. While diplomats are very resilient, sometimes that comes as a cost.

I really feel that many diplomats are actually psychologically broken, we’re called to be resilient so often. Add on living in a foreign place, possibly navigating every day in a foreign language, and no matter how hard you try, you never fit in. As a diplomat, the words you are saying may not be yours, you may completely disagree with them, but you’re paid to say them. 

Diplomats in the consular area see citizens of their own countries at their worst moments, from having a passport stolen to dealing with a death. We are taught to be stoic and not really how to handle the pain or how to connect.

You Can Forget the Real You

By midcareer, diplomats can start to feel like they are not enough, an impostor syndrome kind of thing. Agencies that send people overseas attract the best and the brightest, and that becomes a phenomenally competitive hothouse where a person can lose their true identity, an effect often amplified by social media and the demand to present a certain persona, to conform.


 

 

It’s Easy to Feel Off Balance

There’s an aspect of being a midcareer diplomat that is like a midlife crisis. You’re at a crossroads. Do I continue to meet my professional potential, which comes at a certain cost, or do I transition, hang back?Everybody has to have a work-life balance, whether male, female, single, married, single parent. Each is entitled to be themselves.

You Often Hide Your Human Side

There is a pressure to be ‘O.K.’ Employers provide resources, but there is a stigma in contacting [a psychologist]. There is a fear of being seen as not up for the job, rather than working through the demands of the job, and this fear is compounded by the competitiveness of the postings.

It’s a male-dominated industry, and there’s a hypermasculinity to it. You find yourself searching for some way to connect with people — sometimes in a foreign language — while cultivating both career and family. 

I’ve been accused of being a sook — Australian slang for crybaby — for reaching out and putting this in public, but what could be more authentic than connecting with people?

You’re Not Alone

I’ve stepped back from tracking ‘likes’ on social media and am looking at how people interact and connect, kind of the Lonely Diplomat Underground Railroad. People have written me, quoting me back to myself, on what resonated with them. As one Instagram follower put it, “Keep it up!”

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