At 25, I was living in Chicago by myself in a shoebox of an apartment with little money, a broken heart, and no sense of direction. I remember walking along the lake path every night in a cloud of depression wondering when things would start to make sense. I wanted desperately to be able to point to an age or landmark in the future and say, “There! That’s when I’ll figure it all out.”
If I could go back to my younger self and whisper some words of wisdom into her ear, here’s what I’d tell her:
1. Eat the damn french fries. I love french fries in all their hot, salty glory, but for the longest time, I didn’t allow myself to eat them. At the time, I was hyper-focused on eating only healthy foods in order to maintain the “right” weight. This was not only silly, but a huge waste of time and energy. French fries every day? Probably not the most optimal choice. But enjoying them once a while brings me great joy, and so now, I order them without guilt. Life is too short, friends.
2. When you protect your time, you honor your priorities. People will ask you to do things. If you say yes, and then complain that you are stressed/too busy/overwhelmed—it’s your own fault. Time is your most precious resource. Learn how to say no in order to carve out space for what matters most to you.
3. Travel as much as possible; it’ll make your problems seem much smaller. By visiting another city or country, you quickly realize that a lot of your problems are not that significant. If you’ve got food, clean water, shelter, and people to love—you’re good.
4. Having a “perfect” body has no direct correlation to your happiness. Achieving your goal weight, having a thigh gap, being considered “skinny”: These things might make you happy in the short-term, but they won’t offer you long-standing satisfaction. Make peace with the body you’ve been given; marvel at how it allows you to move, breathe, think, and exist.
5. You actually don’t have to convince someone to love you. “I would never do that,” you say. Then you find yourself compromising your integrity in the hopes that he/she will treat you the way you want to be treated. It’s a fruitless battle, trust me. If you are doing any measure of begging, pleading, or persuading in a relationship, it’s not going to end well. Save room for the people who want to love you, no strings attached.
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6. Pick up the phone. Better yet, show up in person. Stop hiding behind email. Listen to the cadence and rhythm of someone’s voice. Learn how to identify pauses, and how to adjust your tone as you listen to the other person speak. Do all of these things while watching their face and body language as well. Most conversations are entirely different behind a screen versus across a table.
7. Forgive yourself. You might look back on some of your mistakes thus far only to shake your head in frustration, anger, or shame, but try not to dwell on what’s over and done. We make decisions based on the information we have, which is usually incomplete, and sometimes we mess up. Let yourself off the hook, because now you know better. The ability to give yourself grace and compassion in the face of error will be a handy, instructive tool your entire life, so consider this work practice for the future.
8. Don’t send the 3 a.m. text. Just don’t. Late night texts almost always result in emotional hangovers or waking up next to him/her in a state of regret. Anything you must say in the wee hours of the morning can wait until sunrise, I promise.
9. Focus on how it feels instead of obsessing over what it looks like. If something looks right but feels wrong, it’ll come to the surface sooner than later because you can’t hide from your true feelings. Ask yourself constantly, “Does this feel right to me?” then listen to your answer and act accordingly without fretting about what anyone else thinks. They’re not living your life, you are.
10. Understand your money is empowering, not boring. Knowledge is truly power in this instance. Savings rates, insurance, 401k contributions, credit card debt, emergency fund, taxes, flex spending accounts—we live in an age of Google, so there’s no excuse for ignorance when it comes to finance-related topics. Money doesn’t buy everything, but it does offer security and freedom to some degree.
11. When you witness racism, sexism, anything-ism—call bullshit. Staying silent suggests compliance. It’s not somebody else’s problem and it’s not OK to ignore. You’re not being “too sensitive” or “rude” by acknowledging discrimination, intolerance, bias, inequality, slander, or prejudice. Say something.
12. Secrets are slow poison. Over time, secrets seem to get heavier and heavier, and if you’re not careful, they can implode your entire life. This point goes back to #9, too—secrets don’t usually feel good, but we keep them because we want to look good. The remedy? Honesty and transparency, with yourself and other people.
13. Stop apologizing for taking up space, for using your voice, for articulating what you want. “I’m sorry” is a necessary phrase when you hurt someone with your body or your words. That’s pretty much it. Quit excusing yourself for existing.
14. You really, seriously, truly don’t have to convince someone to love you. This one took me, like, 10 years to learn. It bears repeating.
15. You. Are. Enough. The more you believe that you are enough, the less you’ll wait for other people to determine your worth. And when you trust in your own merit, nobody else can take that away from you, no matter what happens.
Turns out, there’s no endpoint or quick route to growth. All I’ve determined, five years later, is that we keep learning and changing throughout good and bad experiences. We slowly but surely try to evolve into slightly better versions of ourselves—hopefully with more integrity, clarity, honesty, and grace. And we do our best to stop romanticizing the past and obsessing over the future in order to appreciate the present moment.