One of the benefits of having a birthday in December is that I can tie every year-end learning to every new age’s beginnings. As the classic post-grad, I have filled my free time reading books and watching indie films for the lost twenty-something finding their way. Most recently, I started reading Everything I Know about Love by Dolly Alderton. Alderton uses the recurring chapter title “Everything I Know about Love” at [insert age] throughout the memoir starting from her teen years, to 21, 25, 28, and 30. At first, I thought it was odd to share some of the problematic beliefs and ideals she had before life got the chance to prove them wrong or have her question all of them. However, there’s something beautiful about having a time capsule of thoughts and epiphanies at any age, even if in a few years from now they turn out to be wrong or embarrassingly simple. We become wiser in the smallest moments regardless of age, so why wait until we’re at an age where society deems us experienced? In honor of Alderton’s recaps, I thought I would reflect on my own, sharing what I know now at 23.
You don’t have to intellectualize everything.
I’m not sure if this is a product of being introverted or spending an obscene amount of time in my head, but somewhere along the lines, I convinced myself that every great problem can be outthought. If someone hurt my feelings, I just have to understand them well enough to tie their actions to some past experience to therefore justify why they did what they did. However, understanding someone’s perspective is different than doing a therapy-level analysis of their behavior to diminish your own feelings. Sometimes things are exactly as they appear to be, there is no need to investigate the why or the how. If someone was mean or if you didn’t like the way you felt after that party then that’s enough to leave, create distance, or say no next time. I would also like to note that positive feelings and experiences can be trusted as well. If you feel better cleaning your room after a night out, then clean your room at 2 am. If talking to yourself out loud brings a sense of calm, then have a full-blown conversation. If you just had the best banter with a stranger in a coffee shop, then ask for their number. In Mary Oliver’s poem, Don’t Hesitate, she states, “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, / don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”
My life does not have to be a how-to guide on being alone.
I have always had a hard time making friends or holding long-term relationships and because of that, I took it as a sign that it wasn’t meant for me. That it was hard for a reason and maybe the point of my life was to just get really good at being alone, so I did. I lived in three cities alone, went on vacations alone, and shared way too many meals, museum dates, and concert tickets with myself. Now, there’s this increasingly popular narrative that romanticizes the person that goes on solo-dates or travels abroad to find themselves, and while I do think it’s important to understand who you are and be secure enough to be your own company — any extreme is not ideal. While I enjoyed myself during those moments and certainly allowed some people to share them with me every now and then, there was still this inability to ask for company, to ask for support. However, there are times when I’ve met people and we clicked and for a brief moment, I remember connection can be easy with the right people, and having a hard time finding it does not equate to you not deserving it. People can be interesting and funny and unexpectedly kind and finding them is part of the fun and in doing so you can still learn about yourself. Our relationships with people are so often a mirror back to own selves. So don’t let anyone convince you that the only way to grow and learn about who you are is to do it alone.
It is not my job to give people good stories.
When I was 20, I moved to New York City and had this quote on my dresser that said, “One day this difficulty will only better your success story, keep working toward that day.” On the surface there is nothing wrong with this mentality, it’s basically saying that any challenges we face will only make our eventual success more impressive. When we think about the change-makers, leaders, and entrepreneurs we love, it’s usually the self-made person — who regardless of all the obstacles set against them — still prevailed. However, this focus on what our story is while we’re living it can create a lot of pressure to maintain the plot when we don’t know the ending. Life is inherently messy and nothing happens in a vacuum. We will always be in the process of learning and unlearning and at times may not know what role we’re meant to be playing. I had become so enthralled in creating good storylines, even if I was at a point where I didn’t know what was going on or if I was even happy with the current chapter. Yes, maybe in retrospect, there will be challenges you’re grateful for because they pushed you to become a better version of yourself but it’s also okay, especially in your 20s, for things to be unclear, not align or make complete sense. It’s also completely okay to say a challenge you faced was unfair and didn’t lead to some self-development journey. I think the trick is accepting the fact that you will always be in the center of a developing plot.
Recognize when you’re trying to fulfill an (untrue) prophecy.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that comes true in part due to some person’s beliefs or expectations of it coming true. It wasn’t until this past year that I connected some of my old behavior with this concept. I caught myself seeking out experiences and people in order to fulfill messaging I had accepted to be true. For one, I would fill up my time with tasks and jobs that any person would find overwhelming to prove that I was not capable or cut out for said job. Or, I would accept emotionally unavailable people who convinced me I had to work for love to prove that I was never chosen or wanted. Sometimes it’s hard to notice how we are sabotaging ourselves and while a lot of work usually needs to go into unlearning these beliefs, we can at least start by recognizing them. There is a sense of relief when you’re able to pause and catch yourself, all of a sudden this idea that seems so fixed becomes just another thing you made up and have complete control in disproving.
Believe in your goodness.
Since I was a teenager I had this underlying fear that I was inherently bad. That I had a villain in me who didn’t care about people, who was evil and was only acting nice. When I got to college and the amount of social interactions increased, I started feeling this fear grow as there were more people who I could hurt and more people who could secretly hate me. This stretched beyond being a people pleaser, it was a fear of hurting people in some deeper emotional way. Even in instances when someone manipulated me, I could never fully blame them because I believed I had done something to cause that action. Maybe I hurt them, maybe I encouraged them to be “bad”. It was easier in every aspect for me to think I was the problem, to think I was the villain because if you’re the villain in the story, then no one can hurt you except yourself. If you are the bad person, then the world is pure and full of good people. I do want to believe the world is full of goodness and that everyone cares. It’s far scarier to admit that someone doesn’t care, that someone intentionally let you hurt, that there are moments where people make decisions without your feelings in mind. Especially as a woman, the idea of expressing anger or pain never felt like an acceptable option. They are ugly emotions but they don’t need to be redirected to yourself to sleep better at night. I believe people are inherently good but I need to accept that humans have flaws and sometimes those flaws hurt me. So just as I wake up every day and choose to believe so strongly in the goodness of the world, I too should believe in the goodness of myself.