Hello, 30 (Part 1): The top 3 life lessons I learned in my 20s

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My 30th birthday is coming up this weekend, so naturally I’ve been reflecting on the past decade quite a bit lately. So many things have happened over the last ten years (good and bad) and I’ve learned a whole boat load of lessons that I’ll carry forward with me into my 30s and beyond. It would take many ages and pages to write them all here, so I’ve decided to share just the top three big life lessons that I’ve learned in my twenties:

  1. I can reinvent myself whenever I want. The (incorrect) lesson I learned as a kid and through my teenage years was that getting through life is about following a set path that will lead to “success”. That sounded pretty good to a kid who grew up without a lot of money and was just dying to escape her small town, so I happily accepted the advice I received and tried my best to follow the formula as it was presented to me:

    4 years of full-time university studies = degree = get a good job + get married = make lots of money and live happily ever after in a big house that you can afford to, like, decorate and stuff

    I discovered pretty quickly that there’s no room in that formula for a poorly formed sense of self, mental illness, addiction, unhealthy relationships, or crippling student loan debt. I ended up working a low-level admin job in the alcohol industry for a good chunk of my twenties, drinking heavily every day and feeling like I was powerless to fix anything. Nothing changed until I decided that I disliked the person I was becoming enough to do something about it. I quit my job, stopped drinking, started making small, steady improvements to my life, and the rest is history. I finally realized that I was never actually stuck - I had the option to turn myself around at any time, I just had to be willing to go through a little (OK, a LOT) of discomfort to do so. 
  2. Community and relationships are everything - but they don’t look or mean the same for everyone. When I first moved to the city after graduating from high school I brought my social anxiety and introversion with me. Except at the time I didn’t realize that my crippling fear of other people was treatable or that my need for alone time/space was OK - I thought that I was just a broken, awkward person whose only shot at developing “normal” relationships was to get drunk enough to not feel awkward anymore. Not a great strategy, just sayin’.

    I still have social anxiety, but I’ve learned to manage it in much healthier ways and to give myself what I need to avoid becoming overwhelmed. While I sometimes struggle to recognize when I’m isolating vs. taking personal space, on the whole I’ve gotten much more comfortable with being alone and with the fact that I enjoy being by myself. It took a long time for me to learn that it’s OK to be a person who doesn’t have a huge circle of close friends or who prefers to hang out in small groups instead of one-on-one. 
  3. Taking responsibility is key and isn’t about accepting fault or placing blame - it’s about empowering myself to take life into my own hands to influence my own outcomes. I was super duper good at playing the victim for a long time, particularly when it came to my mental health and student debt. I often pointed to the factors beyond my control that have had an impact on my life - growing up without a lot of money in a rural area, living with undiagnosed mental health issues, being given not-so-great advice re: taking out student loans to get through university, etc. - and used them as excuses for why my life was such a raging dumpster fire fueled by alcohol, unhealthy relationships, and an unfulfilling career.

    Eventually I had to learn to accept responsibility for my situation. By “accept responsibility” I don’t mean accepting fault or blame for all of the factors that led to my less-than-ideal circumstances. What I mean is I had to learn to let go of the need to place blame at all and accept that I’m the only one who can do the work needed to fix things and improve my life going forward.

    I’m certainly not pleased that I lost potentially happy, productive years of my life to depression and alcohol or that my student debt limits my ability to use my money the way I want to now, but I’ve learned to live with my disappointment and do what's necessary to make things better for myself in the future. I’ve spent years learning about health & wellness, trying to make smart career moves, and putting off things I want in order to crush debt like crazy. I wouldn’t be healthy, stable, or making progress towards my financial goals now if I hadn’t decided to take responsibility for my life years ago, and I love that I can finally foresee a not-so-distant future where Jackson and I are free of debt and able to save money to do the things we want to do.

    It’s important to acknowledge that even though I wouldn’t have been able to tackle my issues if I hadn’t taken responsibility for them, I also couldn’t have done so without the immense privileges that exist in my life and the space/help granted by other people (including friends, family, employers, and therapists). Taking responsibility doesn’t mean doing everything on our own or “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” (UGH), nor are folks always ready to do so when others might want them to. Changing one’s entire perspective and approach to life takes time, and taking responsibility is just one piece of a much larger transformational process involving different stages of readiness and change, not a single-step recipe for linear progression/success. 

So there it is. I’ve got a long way to go and some big plans for the next ten years (more on that next week!), but I’m so proud of myself for not just making it through some nasty shit in my twenties, but for coming out the other side a far healthier, happier, and more resilient person. 
Hello, 30. I’m so ready for you. ♥