With love from your 20s

Year 2017. The year my dreams were finally coming true! I had everything I ever wanted. Well, at least on the outside. Through what seems like a perfectly harmonious existence that was going according my meticulous plan, I was struggling on the inside. Having battled depression all my life, I felt like I was sinking into its depths even further as I progressed into my late 20s. There were good days and bad days. On the bad days, I would usually sit around and wait for the gloomy feeling to pass. I knew it would pass. It was as if I was waiting for something to change, someone to come and make it all ok perhaps (cliché, isn’t it?!).

I wasn’t very sure what I was waiting for. Maybe a dramatic change, an awakening or a sense of belongingness... To me, happiness was an item on a checklist. You accomplish it, tick, done! But what I did not realize is that cultivating happiness was even harder than losing a few pounds after hitting a plateau. Happiness is correlated to self-growth. But the thing is, there are so many resources to help one look better on the outside, but caught up with the busy, career-focused lifestyles, we often spend so little time and resources on growth and improvement on the inside. External improvements are measurable, but internal improvements don’t get tangible rewards and as a result, they are easily ignored.

By mid-2017, I faced an unexpected tragedy. Everything that was good in my life started falling apart. I lost my focus and my career came crumbling down with it. I suddenly found myself out of a long-term relationship, having to give up my PhD, stagnant and aimless in my career. With my 29th year fast approaching, I was in crisis mode. This was not how I wanted my life to pan out! I was confused, angry and embarrassed. My world started collapsing in slow motion around me (yes, it was that dramatic!).

It all happened fast. The first few days following this realization were the hardest. I immediately started going through the grief cycle and it was not pretty.  My friends and family kept reaching out, but I cut them all off. The voice inside my head became louder and louder “You cannot do this! You cannot do this!”. I did not want to live anymore. One evening, I got in my car and instead of driving to the city, I took the motorway to the beach. I thought I would only drive a few miles. But I kept going. I kept driving and driving until I came to the end of the motorway. I stopped the car as a realization hit me. I had two distinct roads to take. One was to let my experiences take over my life and the other was to start making positive changes. I did not know exactly what I was supposed to do. But what I did know was that I did not want to spend any more time dwelling on something that did not serve a positive purpose. That is when I started my journey of self-growth (which is still in its infancy, mind you).

I had invested most of my 20’s into relationships and my career. I had lost my spark and identity time and time again in attempting to fit into a box someone else created for me. I was so afraid of being disliked by others; I had morphed into someone who did not feel at home within herself. I spent hours preoccupied with my 10-year plan. I had a precise picture of what I wanted my 30s to look like. Guess what? Nothing worked out and it is great!

The tribulations I faced in my first decade as an adult helped me grow in many different ways. They made me take a step back and reevaluate my journey. You see, many of us set goals for ourselves, career accomplishments, relationship goals, travel checklists, investments, etc… etc... However, how many of us a focus on self-growth and gaining self-awareness? In my career as a psychologist, I have seen many that are so oblivious to self-growth and continue to run around and around on the Ferris-wheel of life. Self-growth starts with acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses. Listing out strengths is the easy part; they are often observed by others and rewarded explicitly. But many of us are either unaware or in denial of our weaknesses. It takes a great deal of courage and confidence to be able to say “I was wrong”, “I made a mistake”, “let me do better”. As Brene Brown said “vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” It is this endeavor to embrace my vulnerabilities that made me (and continue to make me) resilient.

Hello, my name is Hansini and I am a psychologist. Since I was a first year undergraduate, I was interested in understanding what made certain people mentally strong. This is what led me to my work in mental resilience. I have met many people who have faced adversities of various calibers; loss, breakups, trauma, poverty, turmoil and all variants of these and more. Among those who successfully thrived in such challenges, I saw TWO common factors (1) they were self-aware and (2) they were committed to self-growth. My experiences, my work, and those around me have taught me many things about thriving in adversity. I am not writing this as a psychologist, but an individual who has fallen many-a-times and continue to stand up and push on. Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means close to where I want to be, physically, mentally or spiritually. But I’m on my way! This month I turned 30. The big 3-0! So in celebration, I put together some things that I learned during the adventures of my 20s that has helped me become more resilient.  

1. “Nothing worked out and it is fantastic!”

The world places so much expectation on us. I bet you’d agree if I say that age 30, is socially constructed milestone especially for women. Do well in school, get a job, excel in your career, find a soul-mate, get married, have babies that look like they could be future Instagram models, maintain a Pinterest-worthy home, have a great bod and oh, don’t forget to bake cupcakes every Sunday! No matter how much we try to rebel against this system, it is so deeply imprinted in us irrespective of culture. I had a clear-cut plan too. But guess what? (Well, you already know this one) nothing worked out.

One day, a teacher asked a room full of young students a question, “what do you want to become when you grow up?”. One boy said “I want to be happy”, the teacher disregarding this answer, proceeded to asking him “But that is not what I meant. Career? Maybe you want to have a family one day?”. This is exactly what the world does to us! This is exactly what the rat-race I was unintentionally in, did to me.

It took me a while to realize this. If your life does not go according to society’s timeline, that is ok. It is ok if things fell apart unexpectedly. Look inside yourself. If the adversity helped you grow, it was not an adversity after all. It was a lesson. Whenever I am faced with a roadblock, heartache, a disappointment or anything negative, I ask myself one question – what has this experience taught me that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise?

2. “I made a mistake and I am sorry”

This was a difficult one! You see, since I was a little girl, I was told that making a mistake is a sign of incompetency and weakness. “Put on a brave face!” They said. “Big girls don’t cry!” This is exactly what is wrong with the discourse we share with our children. One of the most important lessons I learned in my 20s is the power of owning your mistakes. When you do, no one can shake your confidence. So instead of teaching kids to wipe the tears and move on, maybe we should tell them that it is ok to feel sad, it is ok to feel weak, but what is important is to keep pushing forward even when you feel like that.. One step at a time. Acknowledging and owning your mistakes and weaknesses is indeed the greatest form of strength.

3. “I cannot spend time with you anymore. Goodbye”

The hard truth is, not all people have your best intentions in mind. Some people will drag you down unintentionally and others intentionally. Whether it is a romantic relationship, friendship and sometimes family, some people may dull your light. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad people. But they are just not good for you. Recognizing and letting go of such relationships, even though very hard, is important for growth. You know they say that if a flower does not bloom, you must adjust its environment. Cutting loose toxic relationships is also like that. In fact recognizing and letting go of such people was the hardest thing I’d done. As a result, my social circle has decreased in size, but increased in quality. Some questions I tend to ask myself about those I spend time with often are ‘What do we talk about?’, ‘Do they make me feel good about myself?’, ‘Do they bring positive energy?’ and ‘Am I happy after spending time with them?’

4. “I will take care of myself today”

Self-care is another important thing I learned to give importance to. I used to believe that taking time off to do things that I love or to relax was a waste of time or that it is selfish. However, as I filled my days with task after task, goal after goal, I realized my mental and physical wellbeing was deteriorating. By the time I was 28, I had not read a non-academic book in 6 years! I had not learnt any new skill that was not related to my profession. So just six months prior to my big 3-0, I created a self-care list for myself. This list contained feasible, self-care activities that I had looked past for years. We cannot pour from an empty cup.  Also, remember, if you are too busy to dedicate at least an hour a day to take care of your mental, physical or spiritual needs, you are doing something wrong. Working smart (not hard) is a great skill that is not easy to master.

5. “I am beautiful. Yes!”

Another important thing I learned in my 20s is how to love and accept my body. Did you know that nine in ten (90%) women are not satisfied with their physical appearance? As a result, the diet and beauty industry has become a multi-billion dollar one across the world. I spent most of my early adulthood pining over each flaw. I wish I was thinner, taller, had better hair, a sharper nose, and the list goes on and on. Accepting and loving your body takes a lot of courage and confidence, and it is one of the most liberating experiences ever. I am still learning to do it. I can however, share with you a couple of my secrets. Every time I look at a picture of myself or in the mirror, my mind will automatically start thinking of ways I could have looked better, the flaws. But instead of doing that, now I challenge myself to name out loud, five things I like about my reflection or the photo. Very quickly, it became a habit and it has enabled me to live with more freedom.

6. “I am sorry you don’t like me, but that is ok”

“Darling, you cannot please everyone, you are not ice-cream!”. Oh you have no idea how long it took me to realize this! Humans have an inherent desire to be liked.  In the process of being liked, it is very easy to lose your identity. One important lesson I learned from my younger days is that I cannot please everyone at all times. There will always be someone criticizing your decisions, talking behind your back or trying to break you down. But that is ok. My (not-so-magical) solution? Rather than spending energy on who says what, I focus on becoming a better version of myself. Tiny steps at a time. When you like yourself, you will find that you attract much more positive energy.

7. “Thank you”

Gratitude is one of the most important skills I learned to foster in my first decade as an adult. It is sometimes so easy to take for granted the things readily available to us. A place to sleep comfortably, a loving family, good health, supportive friends, opportunities, food, ability, talent…. It is so easy to take things for granted and focus on what we don’t have. When I started practicing gratitude, amazing things started happening. My mind started getting accustomed to switching back to positives whenever depressive thoughts started rising. Like body positivity, gratitude must also be practiced daily. It has not been easy, especially when you feel like your journey is slower than others or you are not what the world wants you to be. But, positivity can move metaphorical mountains.

8. “I will continue to learn. Learn about myself, about you, about the world”

Finally and most importantly, fostering a learning mindset is essential. As we grow older, it is easy (and convenient) to think that we know everything or that our perspective is the best perspective. This thinking pattern can be deteriorating as it will shut us off to many learning opportunities. Bundled together with all of the above lessons I learned in my 20s, cultivating an attitude where I was welcoming towards any learning opportunity was one that greatly benefited me, my work and my relationships.

The thing is, life is not easy. It cannot be planned. It will throw challenges at you, sometimes more than one at a time. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. It is this mindset that makes me so very excited to start the journey through my 30s. This year I launched my own organization, was granted a new PhD placement, fostered relationships with people who add immense value to my life, about to marry an amazing man, and most importantly, I am kinder to myself. Hello, 30s! It is going to be a grand adventure!