When I started working on my happiness project over the summer, one thing that stood out to me as a major obstacle was my upcoming birthday in August.
Turning twenty-five felt like a huge milestone, but for all the wrong reasons. It didn’t feel like a celebration of being a “real adult” (but hey, losing those young driver fees on rental cars was pretty swell) or a transition into the period of your life where people stop worrying that you’re going to get knocked up and start worrying that you’re not going to get knocked up.
Instead, for me, it felt like the end of the period where I felt like I could “hit it big” and get into that whole wunderkid movement of amazing teens and twenty-somethings who blow the world away with their genius.
Call me an entitled millennial if you want, but I grew up with parents who fostered in me a love of learning and an appreciation for my own talents. They taught me to know my value as a person, to not let other people tear me down, to believe in what I’m good at doing, and then to go out and do it.
Unfortunately, as I learned in my late teens and my (oh gosh) early twenties, when you combine a childhood/adolescence of believing that you’re going to grow up to be extraordinary, a textbook Leo star sign personality, a lot of anxiety, and a generally ordinary career path, you end up with a big ol’ crash that happens around…oh, let’s say twenty-five.
The internet is full of all sorts of reasons why life isn’t actually over when you turn twenty five. Usually in handy lists of twenty-five reasons, for search optimization purposes and market trending. So clearly, turning twenty-five is enough of a milestone that everyone freaks the hell out about it. At least I’m in good company.
In all honesty, freaking out over not being a Pulitzer Prize-winning author by the age of twenty-five wasn’t a freakout I actually thought I’d have. “Don’t be ridiculous,” twenty-three-year-old Shelly said. “We dealt with this when we decided to go to grad school for something other than an MFA.”
“Seriously, it’s fine,” twenty-four-year-old Shelly added a year later, finishing up NaNoWriMo. “You write for fun now! Isn’t that so much more relaxing? Remember how stressed you were about your senior thesis? It’s great that you don’t have to do that anymore! You just write for yourself!”
Well, younger selves, it turned out that I in fact was not done freaking out about this whole thing.
Back in October, I posted about World Mental Health Day, and how grateful I was to be getting into therapy. In addition to dealing with years of under-addressed depression and anxiety, one of the big drivers for my starting therapy was trying to come to terms with understanding that the–very, very blessed!–life I’m leading is very different from the life I thought I would have when I was much younger.
And that’s the thing, guys–the life I’m leading? It is, in so many ways, a very, genuinely wonderful life. I have a lovely home, a wonderful husband who blows me away daily with the things he does to care for me, a sweet dog who could chew less of my stuff but is overall pretty great, a job where I get to make a difference in people’s lives. I have friends that I trust with my life and that I know would be there for me in any situation, I have close and extended family who are loving and kind and supportive, I have a network of health professionals who support me through all of the various things that make my body try not to work. I have a sharp mind, I have a sense of love and wonder for the world around me, I have, for the most part, a positive outlook on life and genuine hope for the future.
That’s a pretty awesome life. So admitting that despite all of that wonderfulness I’m still pining for a half-cooked dream of jet-setting the world on an international book tour for my world-wide bestselling fantasy novel felt like crap. I felt like I was undervaluing my family, undervaluing the work I do, undervaluing the life I’m living. I felt guilty and ungrateful, like I was letting my family down.
My therapist made a point to tell me that it’s okay to have a hard time letting go of a long-held dream, and that it’s more than okay to have difficulty reconciling childhood expectations with adult reality. We’ve spent a long time talking about my beliefs about myself and my need to be “extraordinary” and where it comes from, and how that drive could be redirected. I won’t bore you with my clinical process, but I will say I’m still working on it, and it’s an ongoing project.
One thing that’s made a big difference, though, is expressing gratitude for the life that I am living now. I started a journal over the summer, but after realizing just how preoccupied I had been with my “expectations vs. reality” dilemma, I started to record daily events that I was grateful for–things that made me smile, things that made me stop and thing, things that made me appreciate the people in my life.
Making time for gratitude has changed the way I think about my life. I spend more time at the end of each day reflecting on moments that have touched me, personally and professionally. I’m not talking about major moments of breakthroughs, either. I took time to recognize the client who tried out for a play despite fighting anxiety, the co-worker who walked with me to Dunkin’ Donuts to get coffee, the friend who sent me a silly Snapchat, the feeling of pride when a client acknowledged a difficult feeling or memory, Ziv bringing extra brownies home from work. I noticed that practicing nightly gratitude in my own written reflections led to me expressing more gratitude out loud–words of affirmation has always been a love language that speaks to me, but by expressing my gratitude for the ordinary wonderfulness in my daily life, I started to feel happier, and more genuinely grateful for the simple things in my life.
I won’t say that I’ve stopped striving for the extraordinary. I’m still writing, still learning, still pushing myself to practice and keep myself sharp and on the lookout for new opportunities. But instead of trying to create a dichotomy between my adolescent expectations and my adult reality, I’ve been focusing on melding them together. The high-styled, perfectly made-up hermit writer of my teenage dream has been replaced by a novelist who divides her time between the written word and a full, thriving family, balancing writing with sticky fingers and slobbering dogs and date nights on the couch.
That’s a writer I’m looking forward to meeting, and a life I can’t wait to lead.