My 26th year of life was full of lessons, takeaways, firsts, and adventures. However, by far the greatest lesson of the year was only two letters long.
Do you ever feel like the passenger in the vehicle of life?
Like, someone is driving, but it definitely ain’t me.
The way I described how I felt about my life a year ago to my therapist involved an anecdote about how I felt like one of my sister’s old hamsters on a motorized hamster wheel.
I was running as fast as I could to keep up with everybody’s expectations, but sometimes my legs would give out and I would be tossed unceremoniously from the wheel as the momentum of running full speed finally caught up to me.
There is a fantastic book entitled Boundaries by Dr. Cloud & Dr. Townsend that describes a both a life without boundaries and a life with boundaries. If you struggle saying no to people in your life or if you really empathize with my hamster anecdote, I highly recommend this book.
It took me about four years to finish this book after my mom had recommended it to me for years prior to that. I only wish that I had read it sooner, but alas, you can bring a horse to water, but you really can not make it drink.
My upbringing was unique in several aspects, but one of the key aspects to my childhood was that both of my parents were heavily involved in my life. They made numerous sacrifices to teach us at home. As Covid-19 continues to affect the day to day lives of countless people and families, I am inspired and grateful that my parents put up with my bullshit for 14 years teaching me at home regardless of the challenges and frustrations that came with it.
Another aspect that made my developmental years interesting was my heavy involvement in church. The involvement combined with my lack of exposure to peers in the normal quantities of someone my age, formed my mind into something quite interesting.
Take the legalism of religion that oftentimes has a works based element to it, and combine it with being taught by those who see your true potential because of how often they are with you and you get someone who is bounded by all sides with great expectations.
Lost in Translation
My whole life has been a constant striving for the approval of others.
I read into each social situation, each element of body language, and I definitely notice when you break eye contact. Even with this blog, I scour the analytical side to try and understand what gets read and what doesn’t. Up until recently, I lived and died for the approval of everyone but myself.
I remember being a freshman in college and having a super embarrassing conversation. As a note, realize that this conversation was happening verbally and so I did not have the benefit of a manuscript as you the reader now does.
A colleague was mentioning how they had gone to a hookah lounge over the weekend. They proceeded to ask me if I had ever been to one.
Naive and sheltered me heard “hooker lounge” and my response was, “Wait… is that even legal?”
My friend said, “Yes… it’s legal”
To which I responded, “Huh… that’s weird. I swore that prostitution was illegal here”
My colleague lost it laughing and I never quite recovered from that moment.
Needless to say, nowadays, when I am not sure I understand something someone tells me, I keep my mouth shut, do a quick search on urbandictionary, figure out which definition makes the most sense contextually, and then incorporate the term as if I knew about it all along.
All this to say, moments like this, have shaped how I communicate with and process the world and relationships around me.
Because so much of my life was dictated by a fear of not fitting in, I did whatever possible to make sure that I was saying and doing what people around me thought was politically and or otherwise correct.
I became a chameleon that could fit into whatever scenario that life threw my way.
In high school, I would borrow classmates’ ipods so that I could see what they listened to in order to start assimilating into the San Diegan music culture. When I was at church, my homeschool Bible classes would be fully utilized as I flexed my knowledge of archaic and random Bible facts, always giving the “right” answers much to the chagrin of some of my youth leaders. I learned that asking a lot of questions in college courses was a sure way to make yourself a target to your peers, so I learned to shut up.
We learn from both the discipline we receive and the trauma we experience, that which we are allowed to say and do.
We become unhealthily reliant upon the systems which we are a part of to give our lives structure and meaning. Nobody really prepares you for life after education. You spent 16-20 years being told what to do and when to do it with little input as to what part your feelings or thoughts played in this system.
The hours of AP course work taught us that sleep was for the weak. Let’s just hamstring our personal self-care habits right off the bat. The exclusion or absence of serious issues in our religious contexts taught us indirectly that either these serious issues were not a problem for most people OR that they weren’t important enough to talk about. The ceaseless questions from relatives and family friends about “what we wanted to do,” prioritized knowing what we would become rather than knowing who we are.
And then after becoming reliant upon this breakneck schedule of studying, volunteering, sports, and work, out of the blue, we are catapulted into unemployment, more education options, or jobs.
We’d been taught to say yes to more: more responsibility, more work, more challenges, more late nights, more stress, etc.
We had been conditioned that self health comes after the needs of whatever organization we were a part of.
The questions we were asked primed us to LIE about how we were “doing” because no one cared or had the time to listen to us.
Life and our responses to the questions became an elaborate act which everyone was watching… expecting us to exceed the achievements of those before us.
The burden of these expectations and the stress of this “yes-to everyone but myself” style of life was never sustainable. So we did what everyone who went before us or was in the trenches with us did: we coped.
Coffee to cope with the lack of sleep,
Alcohol to cope with the pain,
The highs to cope with the lack of control,
Porn to cope with the lack of company
The list goes on.
Pain & Progress
When our pain is invalidated, we must find a way to reduce it so that we can continue with our lives. See healing takes a lot more time and resources than the “important” people in our society deem necessary.
To all my brothers, sisters, friends, and anyone reading this, your pain and your struggle are valid and real. Your coping mechanisms do not define you.
If anything, they serve as an annoying and sometimes painful reminder of a need in your life that isn’t being addressed.
Don’t give up on engaging with yourself to understand what’s happening inside your head and heart.
When I first started going to therapy, I had reached the point where I knew that I wanted and needed help after years of thinking that these other people in my life were the ones that actually needed help.
My first session coincided with me finishing the last few chapters of the aforementioned book, and my therapist gave me an activity.
She told me to do some soul searching and to figure out what were some activities in my life that were truly life giving to me.
Activities that when I was finished completing them, made me feel like I could keep doing them.
Activities that gave me a sustained endorphin rush, a sense of accomplishment, or that made me happy.
At the next session, she told me that my homework was to incorporate these activities into my life on a more consistent basis.
Unfortunately, there was never enough time to do these things.
At least there was never enough time with the current schedule and chaos of my life.
Over the next few sessions, I realized a key concept that absolutely changed how I lived my day to day: Saying yes to: processing my own emotions and feelings, healing from past wounds and trauma, and growing into who I could be meant I would have to start saying no.
In January of 2019 I went on a trip to Turkey per the invitation of my friend Crystal. As someone who saw the United States as a highly advanced country, I was of the opinion, that why should I want to travel to places where the standard of living was lower? I remembered that my cousin had visited the country and there had been a coup, but nevertheless, my overworked self was ready for a change and an adventure even if it was way out of my comfort zone.
The trip was awesome. But the downside… was that life at home was nothing like the absolute adventure that the journey into the unknown had been like. I returned to normal stateside life depressed and finding a support group in my fellow travelers. Due to restrictions of needing to support myself, the joy of traveling was a dream that had to be deferred.
In February of 2019, I began volunteering with the media and broadcasting arm of Mariners church. I re-fell in love with film, but due to prior expectations and commitments, my work did not allow me to volunteer regularly and this life giving activity was deferred.
In March of 2019, I participated in and completed my first marathon with the coaching and support of my friend Will. The process to get to race day was wild and one of the most disciplined things I’ve ever done. The mental strength and grittiness that the race taught me were lessons and skills that I am so glad I was able to learn through that experience.
In April of 2019, in real Breakfast Club fashion, a group of people who never should have been friends, started meeting to share about life and some of the darkest trials that we had ever experienced. Today amid the chaos of Covid-19, we continue to meet.. albeit by Zoom call. They are some of the most genuine and awesome people I’ve ever met, and yet the scheduling required to make this weekly meeting a reality, was one of the first steps in which I practiced saying no to some of the expectations placed on me.
With all these events happening in such quick succession, I began to question a lot of norms in my life. I began to ask questions about why I worked where I worked. I began to ask questions about my coping mechanisms and why I returned to them.
I began to challenge what was accepted as normal, and I began to question the importance of the hamster wheel that I had been running on so long.
The year would be filled with concerts where I would get to see some of my favorite creators sharing their art with the world, and each concert was a reminder of what it looks like to do what you love.
In the summer, my family took a trip to King’s Canyon where we had this crazy experience with a rock and our tire leaving us stranded in the heart of the park with no cell reception. That experience taught me the importance of everything that I had been taught up until that point in my life and how it was all coming in to play.
In the fall, I went to Morocco, Spain, and last but not least, Mexico City with my friend Imon. We went to learn and to help out in any small way we could. We left with a lot more than we bargained for and a lot to think about.
At the end of the year, I took some of the biggest steps I’ve ever taken in saying no to the organizations in my life that were dictating my life and I began to say yes to the passions, dreams, and aspirations that had been discovered or reborn by engaging with myself in those life giving activities.
Some of us have made it this far in life without learning how to say no to those who constantly and consistently ask more and more of us. It can be terrifying to consider the possibility of saying no to some people and maybe upsetting them by setting boundaries to help our own selves.
I spent so much of my life trying to please people by consistently giving in to their requests or demands. Ironically, when you spend your life trying to win and earn the approval of others, you yourself never actually end up happy, and oftentimes, people aren’t that impressed with your performance either.
For as long as you are alive on this earth, the only person you can be sure is going to be there, at the end with you is yourself. If we have to live with the decisions we make then it behooves us to make the best decisions for ourselves.
There is a freedom and peace that I have experienced from engaging with myself and who God has created me to be. I still weigh what people think of me or advise me to do, but at the end of the day, I reflect on the gifts, talents, and skills that God has given me and I choose the path that most aligns with how He can continue to grow those traits.
You are more than the sum of what bosses, people, and organizations say that you can accomplish. The world will never understand you, for you are much too complex. A boxed version of you, is the best they will ever be able to comprehend, because their minds can not fathom who you have been created to be.
I hope that you are encouraged, that boundaries sound a little less scary, and that you start incorporating the word “no” just a little bit more.
Here’s to you!