My life expectations haven’t aligned with my reality

I turned twenty-five years old on a hot August day, somewhere downtown in a room I sublet last summer. The season, although perfectly warm, was turning out to be bittersweet: I had just lost a job I worked hard to achieve, and it took a huge toll on my psyche. I cried often in bed due to shame, embarrassment, and feeling lost about what to do next. I wanted my mother (who could only be there in spirit) and the comfort of having no responsibility. Twenty-five years of living also seemed like a long time to me— life had barely been a breeze. But I was living with a friend and they took me out on adventures in the neighborhood: super long walks, a curious visit to a phony psychic, hunting down a beautiful neighborhood my friend once came across, and birthday brunch! Most of all, I looked forward to opening a special present from my past self, four years ago, addressed to twenty-five-year-old me. The present was a letter sealed in an envelope that read my name and the date I was to open it. It was stashed somewhere I could easily find. When that day came, which was my birthday, four years of waiting felt like it could have been a decade.

I opened the envelope and was pleasantly surprised. The font, Courier New, has always been my favorite and pink paper, which I still wish I could print all my documents on. After unfolding the three-page letter, I read about my life as it was four years ago:

“Dear 25-year-old Josephine,

How are you on this splendid day that is your birthday? This is your past self, twenty-year-old JoJo. Figured I’d write to you now, although it’s 2014 and I’m going on my 21st year sometime this summer, and not 2013 when I’m on my 20th year. It is a very cold winter, and today (January 26) it’s snowing outside. I am in my room, on my pink bed sheets, with my heater forever on, writing this while I procrastinate on starting my wax figure. I’m in school studying Publications, and I’m in my second year. I sure hope you’ve finished school by now, three years ago.”

My awesome self…
…at my old campus print job…
…I must have been 21? 22?

That last sentence broke my heart. I have not finished school. Stress, depression, and anxiety had me bedridden for a few months before I could finish the third year. There had been many bad experiences at school that made me question my life path and the quality of my education. I felt lost and believed that finding myself meant switching programs three times. I could no longer afford to be there anyway because my bank account dipped into the negatives so often. I’m sorry, twenty-one-year-old me, that your expectations weren’t fulfilled. But I tried my best to look for work and to start saving money, and it worked. I did all the inner-work required to get us out of bed, to let go of unnecessary fears, and get back outside. This break was not in vain, but indeed necessary. And, by the way, I’m no longer bound by familial pressure to hurry up and get a degree, nor the idea that a degree will guarantee me a job. I take my time to accomplish all my goals now. While it can be hard to go at my own pace sometimes in a metropolitan city where the world around me seems to be moving so fast, I still try my best to remember that it’s not important to catch up to others. I dream of returning to school someday, and that day may be coming soon.

“…do you still have days when you hate the way you look? Have you grown to love your body? Because right now, especially since December, I’ve been feeling very low about myself. You know the feeling: when you think you don’t look good enough or when you feel stupid and incompetent. Well, I’m not sure if those things can ever go away, but I hope you’ve been doing your best to fight, harder than I am right now, to push those ideas to the back of your mind.”

The weight of people’s judgments about me over the years was a heavy burden. Early on in life, it became important for me to gain the acceptance of others because I had been rejected several times over the way I looked, my spirituality, and even the way I talk. Seeking validation was a habit that took a long time to get rid of, but I finally live for myself now. Feeling stupid and incompetent is no longer something I accept to feel and I don’t tolerate anyone who thinks this way about me anymore. The fact of the matter is that those people hurt me because something about myself made them insecure. Loving my body is difficult and the issue may come up at different points in life as I age and the body changes. But at least I’ve chosen to grow into womanhood with grace and care. That involves defining my own standards of beauty based on what makes me feel good— not from what men, society, or even family, want. Speaking of men:

“Sure hope that by now, you’ve stopped searching for a special partner, and that the Universe, as great as it is, and as grateful as I am to be blessed by the many things it has taught me, has stopped long ago to give you life lessons on what not to look for in a man, or how not to be foolish with them. Enough is enough. And if bad men are still coming to you then I say… live life with yourself. It’s so scary to think about it. It’s so scary to think about any of these things and where I’ll end up at twenty-five.”

I’m not sure why it was so scary to think about my love life at twenty-five back then. Maybe it had to do with the fear of dying alone or meeting someone at an age past my 20s. I’m actually tired of dating and casual flings at the moment, but between four years ago and now, I loved someone with whom there was a deep connection. Unfortunately, they didn’t want the same level of commitment. I met a couple other jerks along the way, too. And although loneliness has had moments where it tormented me to tears, especially as someone who is a complete introvert, I’ve come to acknowledge that it’s okay to want someone to spend your life with. However, giving yourself the love and affection you sometimes crave is more important than seeking a partner.

That’s only half of the letter. Truth is, expectations of myself have not lined up to reality for the most part. This is because my younger self was naively influenced by the demands of the world around her. She read 30 Under 30 lists and articles about how one should spend their 20’s grinding for their dream job. She subscribed to the idea that one must always be productive, have goals, and absolutely follow their bliss— notions constantly drilled in today’s youth. But, in my early 20’s, I didn’t even know what my “bliss” was. That’s the reality for many folks in that age range. Besides, if your day job isn’t part of your “bliss”, so what?

The dog days aren’t over yet. I’m trying to start a small business, which is proving itself to be one of the biggest challenges of my life. Money remains an object and the blues can still grip me sometimes (not on most days, thankfully). Despite all of this, I keep going. At least my spiritual life and inner world are rich. They allow me to see a lot of beauty in the world, and to heal. It’s clear what my values are and the types of people I should align myself with. As life goes on, I only hope that my future self is simply happy and confident in who she truly is.

How Self-Dating Changed My Life

One of my biggest dreams as a child was to fall in deep, true love. Today, while my experiences have refined my perspective on romantic relationships, it’s still a wish of mine. To some, this may seem cheesy but I know that many others feel the same. Our dream is the all-consuming beast Carrie Bradshaw longed for all those years ago.

It’s actually very scary and intimidating to allow yourself to be completely open with someone. I did reject this childhood dream at some point at the start of my adult life, around age 18: as my teenage experiences with males accumulated, my belief in fairy tale romance faded. Then at some point, I figured there was no “The One” but a select group of potential forever-mates I could choose from. I lost my virginity to someone in the said potential group whom I liked a lot, but in his final blow I told myself, “…he’s not it”. I had a few more of those not-it moments. It being the one. That one. The one whom I can share myself with, wholeheartedly, no holds barred. And so I preceded to believe that perhaps this notion of “The One” actually made sense. I believe that The One is out there for me. Like Charlotte York, I’ve got the unwavering belief that I, too shall live a fairy tale kind of love.

I’ve tried to seek “The One” quite recently, but to no avail. Right now, I’m like a bored judge at an audition, sitting at the table like, “next…” Some don’t have the decency to ask me out on a nice date, but rather to hang out at the Subway down the street or the parking lot. (What!??) Oh, and the dating apps are boring. I can’t meet a serious person on there, and I freak out when I see someone I actually know. So I figured, why wait for someone to court me? I can court myself!

I take myself out on a date sometimes. My favourite activity is exploring natural parks because I love seeing wildlife, breathing fresh air, and taking long walks. I visit art exhibits. I indulge in my brunch obsession sometimes. I love to date myself for the self-discovery it brings. Most of all, I get to be selfish and bond with my favourite girl — me! I am my own best friend.

Taking yourself out on a date is an avant-garde practice. It’s about deepening the relationship you have with yourself — a relationship which none of us can escape from, but can either hinder or nurture. Smiley Poswolsky explains the benefits of self-dating perfectly:

“When you start dating yourself, your mindset shifts. Rather than define your own self-worth based on whether someone else swipes right at your photo or whether someone else wants to go home with you, you determine your own self-worth based on how you’re spending your time. You can commit to personal projects, set aside time for self-reflection and self-care, and discover new career aspirations. Instead of simply going through the motions, you’re in the driver’s seat of your own life.”

One night, I wore some makeup and athleisure to a date on the couch watching Netflix, while eating a delicious bowl of cheese-flavoured popcorn. Actually, that night, I felt bummed and lonely prior to my impromptu date, but I did not want to let the feeling consume me. It came to me that I had to acknowledge my loneliness, but that I am also able to cater to my own needs.

This past couple of years have been a rough ride. I am just now becoming comfortable in my own skin and living in a way that best suits me. In the past, I complained about guys not treating me with complete respect and not seeing how incredible of a catch I am. Meanwhile, I was not treating myself with the utmost respect. Now, I’ve created new boundaries and gained a great amount of self-respect and appreciation. I can be romantic, honest, present, and kind with myself. There always seems to be an issue I have to fix, but that’s part of self-development. All in all, I’ve never loved myself quite like this!

How to Make The Best Out of Therapy

If we attend therapy, how can we help ourselves get the best out of it? Here are some methods:

Listening with an open heart.

Take it in. Take it ALL in! Silencing our thoughts; not thinking about a reply until we’ve (briefly) considered what the therapist has just said.

Thinking about a detailed answer before responding.

For example, if asked, “how long have you felt this way?” it wouldn’t be helpful to reply with a vague answer that beats around the bush, such as, “Well, I’ve been this way for a very long time.” This answer provides a shield, keeping us from opening up to someone. Personally, I feel my chest tightening and my back curling when I’m asked a personal question like this.  But being as specific as possible, like thinking about approximately what age our symptoms started to appear, after which incident or phase, and how frequent our symptoms have been since then. So, a better answer is: “I remember feeling upset very often as a child, probably around 10 years old. I just started distancing myself from friends and family. I remember being bullied by a few kids at school because of my weight.” The professional with whom you’re working can then ask you more questions that will uncover the reason behind your emotions and behaviors.

Recording sessions with permission.

Asking to record an audio version of  sessions on our phone or bringing a notebook. The best counselors/therapists don’t let us leave without session notes that further treatment. We can write them ourselves or ask for a copy of notes and strategies discussed during the appointment.

Suggesting homework if none is given.

This applies to when your therapist/counselor is helping you achieve something, or getting you to do something you used to love doing again. We can ask if they have any suggestions on how to get back into the groove of things. Self-development happens mostly outside of therapy.

Keeping session notes where we can see them.

Single sheets of paper can be hung on the wall of our bedroom, office, a private space, or a closet. We can also keep them in a folder or binder on the desk, or next to bed. The point is for our notes to be easily accessible. We may review them a few times a week, once a day, or whenever we need to.

Maybe it’s not the right fit.

We may explain our issues to a therapist and all they say is something like, “What do you think you can do about that?” or, “You tell me what to do about that.” I’ve even gotten, “So how can I help you?” and that can be frustrating. I mean, we don’t go to therapy to have someone help us think, and we certainly don’t go in knowing exactly how the therapist can help us. But we go to gain someone else’s (positive) perspective on our matters and to gain new ideas on how to deal. So, if we have no idea what we think we can do for ourselves, or how they can help us, we must kindly reply that we don’t know, which is the reason we’re seeking help.

If we don’t feel a connection, or if talk therapy no longer works, then it’s best to seek help from someone who specializes in the exact area we need healing. For example, the help of an eating disorder specialist for disordered eating, an intuitive counselor if we are interested in developing intuition, a pastoral therapist if Christian faith is important to us. Even a life coach! The goal is just to find someone who understands where you’re coming from.