Tomorrow marks my 30th birthday, and it feels like the right age to me. Hell, some days my preferences make me feel more like 70 than 30 (I’m looking at you 5:30 dinner and early bedtime).
The decade of the twenties was full of life lessons, many of them painful, and many of them only making sense in hindsight. As I was reflecting on this, I am grateful to say that this is the first time in my life where I truly feel comfortable in my own skin, content, and genuinely believe that I’m on the right path of this journey called life.
Being from a long line of hard-headed women, I found that I had to learn lessons the old fashioned way. The old fashioned way being the arduous and rocky way, despite the wise advice of others, namely my mother (sorry mom).
Here are a few of things I learned while fumbling my way through the last two decades:
1. Taking yourself seriously is a waste of energy and time. Being a human being is a kind of ridiculous thing. So many of the things we worry about – wealth, status, and education- are social constructs, which means we’ve made them up! At the end of the day we all eat, we all poop, and we all die. Taking ourselves too seriously sucks the joy out of life, and life is too fragile and short to waste that kind of time.
2. Do things that are consistent with your values. We can feel it in our guts when we do things that are out of alignment with our values. It doesn’t feel good. Integrity is a sexy thing.
3. Even the most selfless people are self-involved, which means they care less about what you do than you may think. While that may sound depressing, it’s also quite liberating. For those of us who have spent painful amounts of time caring about the opinions of others, realize that their opinion is fleeting and truly does not matter.
4. People don’t remember specifics about what you do or say, but they do remember how you make them feel. Maya Angelou famously said this, and it’s absolutely true. Compassion, empathy, and genuine interest go a long way.
5. Communication is THE key to a healthy relationship. This is true for romantic, familial, and friend relationships. I come from a family of over-communicators, and I’m grateful for it.
6. Humor is a close second.
7. The things that we do, especially the things we aren’t proud of, don’t define us. I use to think that the very human things that I would do to cope with stress or sadness meant that I was a bad person. I now see that we all are human and we try to do the best we can with what we have. I look at these things now as red flags. When I start emotionally eating, or getting judgmental of others, I am able to take a step back, pause, and get curious about where I’m not being fed. Typically, I’m neglecting my intrapersonal time when this starts to happen. When we begin to look at our behaviors as a warning system, we can avoid the shame and pain of labels like “good” or “bad”.
8. Worth is not conditional. As a work-a-holic by nature, I still struggle with the notion that my worth in a day is not characterized by what I produce or accomplish. My worth is the same whether I lay on the couch all day and doing nothing or volunteer at a nursing home, mow the yard and see clients. Worth can’t be purchased by accomplishment or productivity.
9. Life is a series of beginnings, there is no “arriving”, and there is only the next right thing. I love hearing about the lives of older adults because the more you listen to life stories, the more you realize there is no such thing as finishing. I once thought that I’d be satisfied once I check things off my list- marriage, house, degrees, jobs, etc. Those things are really just beginnings. You don’t just stop once you do the thing (at least hopefully not). Our work and our experiences are additive and prepare us for whatever the next thing will be. I always wanted to be an expert in something, but the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. When we think we know it all and when we stop asking questions, it’s time to move on. It’s time to find the next right thing.
10. The body and mind are inextricably connected. The older I get, the more I realize how true this becomes. Movement keeps me balanced. Food keeps me going. Getting enough and enough of the right foods is vital for my mood, clarity of thought, and overall sense of well-being.
11. Listening is more valuable than talking. Speaks for itself.
12. Be selfless and intentional in conversation. This may sound like therapy 101, but it’s true in any relationship, whether you're a therapist or not. The more curious we become about another person, the more we ask, the more we listen, the more we understand, and the more we connect.
13. Prioritizing relationships is painful but necessary. The older we get, the more demands we have on our schedules, and the less time we have to spend quality time with our loved ones. I’ve been lucky to meet some amazing people and forge great bonds with people over the years. Unfortunately, as space grows and life happens, it is natural to lose touch. I don’t get to my home-town very often these days. When I am there, it’s for 2-4 days max. While I’m there, I prioritize spending time with family and those relationships that I call family- even if it’s just running across the street from my folk’s to catch up for a new minutes. Friends who are like family. I would love to connect with all of the friends I’ve loved over the years, but the sad reality is that time is prohibitive, and I never regret the time I spend with family and family.
14. The value of a dollar.
15. Limiting effort in relationships that are life-draining rather than life-giving. This goes back to the point of not needing everyone to like you. Who you spend your time and energy on matters.
16. The amazing versatility of a hat! Saturday showers? Meh.
17. Constructive criticism is the best way to grow. Rather than fearing criticism, embracing it as a way to get better inspires growth. Asking for feedback and asking questions rather than feigning (false) competence is appreciated by supervisors and looked upon favorably.
18. We can do the hard thing. This may sound like therapy 101, but it’s true for all of us, whether you're a therapist or not. The more we sit with discomfort, the more tolerant of it we become. This is how we grow.
19. People are generally trying to do the best they can. It’s easy to judge what other people do without stopping to think of the reason. I’m not trying to justify poor behavior, but most people are trying to do the best they can with what they know and what they have.
20. We don’t all start from the same place. Privilege, particularly white privilege and class privilege exist. Success is not as simple as “working hard”. It’s easy to “work hard” and "be successful" by getting graduate degrees or by being wealthy when education or a business are handed to you. It’s a lot harder when you are raised by a single parent who is working their tail off to put food on the table, when you have a skin color other than white, when you go to a failing school with no resources.
Ultimately, the last 29 years have taught me the importance of relationships and compassion, including self-compassion.
As this new decade prepares to launch, I have to say that I’m grateful for the lessons of the last, and grateful for not having to repeat those lessons again. We grow, we learn, we evolve.