Just about everyone grows up with pressure to look, think, communicate and act in certain ways. The expectations may have been your parents’ wishes, the culture of your extended family, based on religious beliefs or a national/ethnic identity, based on where you lived or how much money you had, or they could have been self-imposed – among thousands of influences. Not to mention society at large.
If I could visit my younger self and give myself some friendly advice, here are some of the topics I’d address.
It’s OK to be quiet.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told how shy, quiet and serious I am. I can’t count the number of times I failed to make small talk and a jovial relative said, “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” No, and you just eliminated any chance of me talking to you.
Similarly, at school and church, I was always being told I looked too serious and I should smile, presumably through gritted teeth after being prodded about it so often.
There was tremendous social pressure from relatives, teachers and other adults to be more outgoing and expressive. I think they genuinely feared I was sad or lonely or lacked self-confidence, and they thought if they reminded me to behave differently, it would eventually become second nature.
I would say to my 5-year-old self:
You know when it’s important to speak up and you can do it. You don’t have to be like that every minute. Stay close to friends and family that you can be yourself with. In time you’ll gain new skills and have all kinds of experiences you’ll want to share. It’s OK to be “good enough” in social settings, and to save your innermost feelings for your dearest ones. It is not a crime to be thoughtful.
You are not destined for anything or anyone.
I imagined that as I became an adult, I would be faced with a series of irrevocable choices. I would have to choose the right course of study, choose the right career, be offered the right job, live in the right city, and meet the right partner: otherwise I would fail at life.
I had a path to follow and it was up to me to discover it. I was afraid to make the wrong choices and find out my job or my house was wrong and I would have to embark on the painful process of undoing, while everyone around me was sure of themselves and successful.
I would say to my 23-year-old self after moving across the country to take my first career job:
You met your goal of getting your degree, so you have what it takes to meet goals. If the job doesn’t work out, you’ve learned what you don’t want to do. It’s humbling and expensive to begin again, but life is not all about upward mobility. Play the long game. Knowing yourself is worth it.
Note to readers: I lived away from my home province for 15 years, in two long-term jobs and two short-term marriages, before returning “home” and starting over.
It ain’t over till it’s over.
As a teenager, I peeked into the future and envisioned myself in the year 2000. I would be 36. This was ancient. My glimpse at myself was culturally prescribed: I would be working full-time; I would be a married to a man who would be working full-time, too. We’d own a house and have two kids. We’d mow the lawn and go camping and visit our parents. Maybe when I was 36, my kids would be 8 and 10 and we’d spend our weekends at hockey tournaments. It was what I wanted. But it also seemed like an endless grind.
That was such a linear path and such a limited view of maturity. I looked at my parents, aunts and uncles and older cousins, and imagined my life like their lives. How could I live a life unconstrained by convention? I had no role models for that.
So here I am at 54 years old and life is the furthest thing from an endless grind.
I would say to my teenage self:
Life is not “over” after all your firsts: loves and marriages and houses and kids and travels and careers. Firsts are thrilling and memorable. But repeats and returns and do-overs are great, too. (Why else would people have two kids and three pets and two cars, haha!) There is always room in your heart to love more cities, more songs, more friends. Enjoy the new Star Wars movie and the family reunion and the new vintage of Tidal Bay; not just the trip of a lifetime to Paris. Joy does not run out or get muted when you’re 40 or 60. You still feel it!
I’m not going to go on because Tim Minchin has said everything I would want to say to myself right here in his 9 Life Lessons:
What would you say to your younger self?