As has become tradition, it’s that time of year for my yearly reflection post! I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions in favor of Old Year Lessons, and since the year is winding down it’s time for me to reflect on everything 2015 has taught me. This year was a year of big changes: I celebrated my 21st birthday in January, shipped off to LA over spring break to see if the entertainment industry was for me (it wasn’t), spent a summer apart from Boyfriend while he worked with the USDA in Iowa taming the avian influenza outbreak, began my senior year of college, and spent my first Christmas away from home. 2015 has been full of new experiences, and this year taught me…
…it’s okay to listen to my own rhythm.
This year, I celebrated my 21st year on Earth, which means in America I officially became a legal member of the alcohol club. Even as a card-carrying participant, I still don’t drink all that much. As a 21-year-old college student at a big university, I sometimes feel awkward if I don’t want to drink or go out to party. I get caught up in what I’m “supposed” to be doing or what the “normal” college thing is, and it sometimes stresses me out. But something I learned after celebrating my first legal drink was that it’s totally okay to do my own thing. I didn’t even get drunk on my birthday, but it was what I wanted it to be.
Social pressures are exhausting, whether they’re about drinking, clothing, actions, or studies. Someone will always be there to tell you you’re doing it wrong, and sometimes you just need to listen to your own voice telling you that what you’re doing and who you are is exactly who you’re supposed to be. There will always be moments when I feel insecure about how the world perceives me, but I’m learning that following my own rhythm is much more important than paying those outside voices too much mind.
…forgiving yourself costs less than carrying too much guilt with you.
This year was a big year for me when it came to coping with my anxiety. For the first time, I understood the root of so many of my anxiety triggers: shame. And let me tell you, shame is exhausting. It’s cranky. It’s selfish. It tells you how much you don’t matter, and how much you’re a burden on others, and reminds you of every mistake you’ve ever made– real or perceived. It’s an expert at convincing you it’s right even when it’s not. And who wants to fight something that seems to know what it’s talking about? I know I didn’t.
It’s hard to unlearn the lessons of guilt that years of buying into my shame story taught me– it’s even hard to name something like shame, because it sounds so… shameful. “I don’t do shame,” or “that’s not me” used to pop into my head all the time, because it was difficult to admit that something I’d been taught was so negative was affecting my life. But shame affects everyone who feels emotions, because it’s an emotion. Just like happiness, or sadness, or frustration, shame is something that we all feel from time to time. The difference for me (and many people) was that it stuck around much longer that it should have when it would pop up, and would trigger a bunch of unwanted feelings and reactions. Enter the anxiety disorder.
Remembering that I am not alone in my journey– both through my anxiety and through life– has been a process. Just like some of the most valuable people in my life, I’ve been buying into the “you don’t matter” or “you are bad” narrative for so long that there are times when I definitely still believe it. I carry in my arms the guilt of past mistakes, or past insecurities, or perceived shortcomings of my past, present, and future. I let my shame tell me I deserve to feel anxious, or stressed, or worthless. And then I let it tell me that if I were only a little stronger I could “beat” it, or I wouldn’t experience it at all. In the past, I would have continued to let it simmer on the back burner until finally I boiled over into a complete anxiety meltdown with no idea how it got so bad in the first place.
Now, I remember to stop and tell myself that it’s okay. I remind myself that I am no longer in the past, experiencing pains and missteps that have already happened. I remind myself that they’ve passed for a reason, and that the only thing I can do now is move forward. I remind myself that no matter how many times I replay the soundtrack of my past, it has nothing new to say. I remind myself that the only thing that comes of carrying past guilt and sadness is guilt and sadness and pain that affects my present.
I used to think that by buying into the stories my shame and anxiety told me, I was making myself “better” for next time by never forgetting how I’d messed up before. Or maybe that carrying my shame was a way to atone, and that I’d stop feeling ashamed or guilty when I had finally “paid my dues.” But that’s not how shame works. It keeps talking as long as you’re listening, even if it has nothing new or productive to say.
I used to try to battle the shame and anxiety I felt, or deny that it existed until it went away, but now I’m trying to have a relationship with it. I’ve learned that acknowledging the existence of my unproductive thoughts gives them less power, because I invite them in to work through instead of pushing them out and letting them take control as they fight to get back in. Sometimes, the best way to realign with the honest voice in your head is to look shame in the face and say, “it’s okay. I forgive you.”
…relationships can change, but that doesn’t mean they stop being good.
No one tells you how to grow apart from friends. There’s never a shortage of breakup articles when you end things with a romantic partner, but there’s little out there on how to cope with changing relationships with your friends. I used to think that my friendships needed to stay the same as they were to be as good as they were, and worried that changing dynamics meant things were doomed. But I’ve found new peace as I’ve become accustomed to the new shape of changing relationships, because they are still good– different, but good.
Change can be difficult to stomach, especially when it comes through some of the longest-running constants of your life. But just because priorities shift, or interests change, or schedules aren’t as open as they used to be, it doesn’t mean that those relationships need to end. It just means that the way you grow together is different than the way you grow apart. Sometimes, you grow more apart than you grow together but that’s okay. As long as some of your branches stay intertwined, that’s sometimes all you need.
…have courage and be kind.
Our experiences can cause a lot of pain. Bad relationships, failures, complicated family dynamics, stress, and all the other sticky parts of life can make it feel like no matter how fast you run or how hard you move your legs, you’re still in the same place. Sometimes all it takes is one word or trigger placed just so to make everything feel out of control, and you become scared and hurt from things that have nothing to do with what’s really in front of you.
When I find a patch of stickiness that still hasn’t been totally washed off my hands, I get scared. I feel hurt as deeply as if the pain is pressing right up against me for the first time. Everyone has sticky patches that make us doubt ourselves or feel things that hurt, and sometimes they make us want to curl up and avoid everything. We say things like “that’s just how it is” or “I deserve to feel like this” or “I can’t do anything about it” or “I give up,” and let fear steer us back into shame and pain and stickiness. We tell ourselves that we deserve to be afraid and hurt. We are not kind to ourselves.
It’s easy to stay afraid. It’s easy to be mean to ourselves, because we tell ourselves we can take it and that we must deserve it. It’s hard to look that fear in the eyes and say “This is not who I am. I am not afraid.” It’s hard to feel pain and comfort ourselves while we work through it. Until recently, I can’t remember ever saying to myself “It’s okay that you’re hurting. Don’t be scared. You are not alone.”
We are often told to be kind to others, to extend empathy and understand what they are feeling… but it’s rare to extend that lesson to ourselves. It’s rare that we are told to empathize with ourselves, understand where we’re coming from, and tell ourselves it will be okay. We’re told to “not be selfish” and to avoid talking about our feelings. Sometimes, we’re told we shouldn’t be feeling them at all.
What I learned in 2015 is that in order to grow from my experiences and feelings, I needed to understand and let myself feel them. I needed to have the courage to confront the pain I experienced and emotions I felt, and have the kindness to treat myself with the same empathy that I treat others with. Being kind and courageous is hard. But it feels much better in the long run.
As 2015 comes to a close, I’m excited to see what 2016 will bring. This year, I grew a lot and learned a lot of difficult lessons. Some, I learned quickly, and others took me all year to truly grasp. I had help through every new experience and every unmapped territory, and can’t wait to see the lessons I’ll be writing about next year.