It is easier to see the narrative and decisions of your life more clearly “in hindsight”. Though it seems like an obvious (and perhaps useless) revelation, it was this process of looking backward at my experiences that ignited the much-needed leap of faith it took me to change my mindset, and more concretely, my career path.
A few years ago, I found myself in a windowless office sitting across from the eager eyes that often accompany that fresh-out-of-college glow. I had been asked to step in last minute to interview a prospective junior level employee to join the marketing agency I had spent the majority of my early twenties working for. Once through a rapid-fire round of “why are you here, what are your future aspirations and what does your 5 year plan look like?” she quickly shot the same line of questioning right back at me. I’m not sure why I was surprised, but I was. In hindsight (there’s that word again), the immediate sweat and flushed face that took over were a manifestation of the truth: I didn’t have the answers. The words coming out of my mouth were far from the thoughts running through my head, and I realized at that moment that I felt like an imposter in my own body.
Following this period of self-reflection, I realized that up until that point I had been making decisions by simply doing what I thought I was supposed to do. Driven by a deep-seeded combination of family, religious, (American & Filipino) cultural and societal values, a formula for success developed in my head and became engrained in my psyche. For me, this meant unwavering hard work & achievement + financial security + being a (reasonably) good Christian = success & happiness in life.
After graduating with a four -year degree, working five+ years in marketing and media and with 26 years of “achievements” defined by paychecks, report cards and accolades to display on my fridge, I realized that I had miscalculated somewhere. The truth was, I didn’t feel particularly successful or happy at all. In fact, I felt guilty, selfish and ashamed that the same things that seemingly made my peers happy didn’t make me happy. So I spent the next the year and a half proving to myself that they did. Instead of changing my actions, I tried to change, and at times more accurately ignore, my own feelings and needs which felt painfully counter-intuitive to that one-size-fits-all equation I had so rigidly followed thus far.
I’ll jump straight to the problem with this methodology. There is no universal formula, and if there is, it sure isn’t linear. What the variables were weren’t so much the problem as where they came from and how they got there. And those are questions I had never stopped to ask myself. I had for the most part achieved all of the things I had set out to achieve in the “first quarter” of my life and I felt more lost and unfulfilled than ever. So I broke. Countless sleepless nights, ugly cries, and long-winded conversations with anyone who would listen later, I was finally forced to take the first step, or rather the first look, in the mirror.
What I found was that I had left my little girl dreams, (to become a pediatrician, a musician, an artist and a back-up dancer for Beyoncé all while running the world) behind to follow a more socially comfortable and traditional route. Where did those dreams go and how had I strayed so far from that hopeful, tenacious and confident little girl?
It’s funny when you think about the memories you hold on to and how they affect your adulthood. The way I viewed myself was shaped equally if not disproportionately more by the negative feedback than the positive. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words had broken my spirit. Whether they were true or not, the times people told me I was “too competitive, so nice it was annoying or fake, weird, dramatic, trying too hard, and pretty…for an Asian” were the things that stuck. And they crept their way into my internalized self-perception. When I revisit those moments in my mind I don’t think I ever felt any of those things at all. And allowing other people’s judgments to define your feelings and drive your actions can be a really scary thing in your teenage years, which then inform your early adulthood.
So I learned a couple of things from these experiences. 1. People need to simply be easier on one another and themselves, and 2. I personally had to take control and responsibility for my own feelings, intentions and actions, which were all connected. I had subconsciously allowed the quick-to-judge and petty interactions between teenage girls to prevent me from showing and exploring the vulnerable parts of myself, (which I am now learning are some of the best parts). Instead, I grew up scared to ask questions or ask for help. I shied away from anything that might be perceived as a weakness or strength or as unconventional and different. In a way, you could say I was presenting a watered-down version of myself. Consequently, I started chasing the idea of happiness as something that could be obtained as a result of making others happy even at the expense of my own needs.
Although I appreciate the part these experiences played in shaping my relationships, the need to blend in and accommodate at all cost can be an exhausting and anxiety-ridden way to live. I remember the exact point in my life that I started dumbing myself down, second-guessing every word, internalizing my thoughts and making jokes that I didn’t even think were funny and were actually self-deprecating. At the underlying root of this need to accommodate and adapt was fear. Anyone who knows me well knows that I can be highly anxious in situations testing both my rational and irrational fears. Among the hardest to shake are the fear of disappointing and being judged by others and the fear of disappointing and judging myself. These oxymoronic fears and insecurities crippled me in a way that made asking for and accepting help from others and leaving a reasonably lucrative job to start all over again seem impossible. I felt stuck.
When I took away the insecurities, fear and anxiety what was left in the mirror was that same little girl; the girl who felt empowered, confident and deserving enough to follow her dreams, felt comfortable with being uncomfortable, and who was guided more by truth and passion than norms or the opinions of others. It was clear to me that the variable that had been missing from my equation was me.
Now, a few years older and well into the last year of my twenties, here I am: back in school pursuing my masters in nutrition to eventually become a registered dietitian, helping my sister run a small business that fosters creativity and self-acceptance and engaged to be married to someone who loves and supports my individual dreams (even when they change and delay our plans as a couple). I have never been happier, but I have also never been so scared, unsure of the future and dependent on others. When I started asking questions and accepting help and stopped trying to prove myself, it became easier to recognize and respect my own unique ideas, needs, feelings and voice. Happiness isn’t something I chase or aspire to be. It’s something that happens as a consequence of my own intentions and actions every day. I guess you could say that my twenties were defined by a journey of self-discovery. I’m not sure what my thirties or even my forties will bring, but I do know that they will be defined by me.
Photo by Emily Long