psychology

38 Lessons In 38 Years

Happy July! I’m turning 38 this month! I’ve lived the entire last year and a half with blepharitis, an annoying eyelid condition that needs constant attention. I feel more pains in strange places than I used to. I nearly pulled my back out doing a basic workout the other day. Yep, all signs point to the fact that I’m getting old. But this means I’m now ready to start dispensing wisdom to all the young folks. Right?!

A writer I follow, Ryan Holiday, makes an annual list of life lessons and I felt inspired to write my own. Many ideas have been talked about at length here on the blog, and I’ll link back quite often or link to ideas from other people. Here are a few important things I’ve learned about myself and the world since 1983.

Learning some wilderness lessons: 1993

1. I don’t speak my mind often enough. I take a lot of time to develop my opinions but they tend to stay inside a lot of the time. And when something is bothering me, I tend to swallow it. This is improving with age and experience, but it will always be a struggle.

2. Undoing big life decisions isn’t such a big deal. I’m harder on myself than anyone else would be on me. In fact, talking about changing my mind on big life decisions has created stronger connections with other people – we’re all just human.

3. Making a house wishlist helped me jump at the chance to live where I do now. What a great idea –  thanks to YNAB I felt mentally prepared for this leap to living alone.

4. Anxiety is kind of like shouting into a void, it really doesn’t help me in any situation. It’s like my fear-brain spins out of control and hits the replay button. You know what has really helped me reduce it and nearly eliminate it? Running. It makes me realize how connected our minds and bodies really are.

5. Social media doesn’t make me feel better in the long run, but it does give some nice short-term dopamine hits. I admit I still go back and look for likes and comments after I’ve posted something. Last year I stepped away for a while and really enjoyed the break, and realized it was influencing even how I construct my thoughts.

6. Speaking of social media, I’ve found that asking myself what I really need or want to be doing right now is a good way to cut out so much mindless feed scrolling. I can always think of something I should be doing instead. Sweep the floor, put the laundry away, read another chapter, write a blog post?

7. Making small talk is not really so painful. In my 20s I had a major disdain for small talk, which made me come off as a snob in certain situations. I think I thought I knew everything, and subsequently decided small talk was for boring people. Man, I was such a pleasant person to be around. Getting older I appreciate those small moments, whether it’s with a neighbor on the elevator, a quick chat with a coworker before a meeting, or a chance to connect more with a student. Science is starting to show we need those interactions and our mental health suffers without them.

8. My time is valuable. I try to remind myself of that every time I slip into thinking about work during non-work hours. I especially needed this when I would start to mentally spiral thinking about a job I didn’t like and felt a lot of anxiety about. (My mantra to snap out of it: “this is me-time!”) Also key: I carve out a full hour of lunch for myself, a time nobody can schedule meetings or classes on my calendar. My students mention feeling frazzled and not having time to eat lunch, and it reminds me that we all need to take control of our time and prioritize our own well-being.

9. Social anxiety may have been church anxiety for most of my 20s. Maybe it was my body’s way of trying to tell me I didn’t really want to be there? Now, years after giving myself permission to stop going, and spending more time in quiet reflection, I can’t imagine putting myself back in that situation. Or, like #7, I didn’t enjoy the small talk there because I didn’t totally agree or feel we had anything in common.

10. Budgeting is one of the smartest habits I’ve ever developed. Getting control of my finances has positively influenced every other area of my life.

11. Exercising daily is the second best habit I’ve ever developed. Being active and moving toward a mostly plant-based diet are resetting my mind and body. I do bodyweight exercises first thing every morning, but aside from that, I’m really enjoying running, skating and cycling – even mountain biking this year!

12. Email. I really try not to check it at all during the weekend. I try not to check it on my phone either, because that seems to be an unconscious habit I’ve formed. Swipe around phone screen, open email mindlessly just to see if there’s anything in there. I appreciate Cal Newport’s ideas around email, even if my inbox is never really swamped.

13. Yoga is the single best thing I’ve ever done for my posture. One yoga teacher suggesting “engage the core, tuck in your chin” have done wonders for my back. Now it feels weird to not sit or walk with good posture! And hey, it also helped me get through the quarantine and come out on the other side way more stretchy and flexible than I was before.

14. I used to think there was just One Correct Life Path (“God wants you to do ___”), but looking back, I’m sure there could have been many good alternatives. One thing I’ve contemplated recently is if I could go back in time, I might have chosen to go to the college that offered me a 100% tuition-free spot. I turned down the full ride at ECU to go to UNCW. There I got involved in a Christian campus group my first year that turned completely cult-like and it had a major negative effect on my emotional health, which I didn’t realize until years later.

15. Moving away from my hometown at 18 and home state at 23 were important transitions that have shaped the direction of my life. Living with a lot of people (and I do mean a LOT) has been an enriching life experience. Learning quirks and habits, who we get along with well and who we don’t, sharing space, and being tidy and respectful, are all important life lessons.

16. I say a lot of dumb things. Once, years ago, I responded enthusiastically to a coworker who didn’t get a knife at a restaurant and asked to borrow one, “You can use mine!!! I’m only using it for cutting!!” That’s just one example of a multitude of things that come out of my mouth before I’ve thought about it. I’ve calmed down a lot, but it still happens.

17. Photography is a wonderful medium of expression. It helped me start to see the world in a new way, and even though I didn’t pursue it professionally, it’s still my preferred art form to practice. I recently discovered my photos have almost a million views on Unsplash, which is a nice feeling.

18. Speaking another language has opened up entire worlds. Living life in a second language has accelerated that even more. Go learn another language if you haven’t already. Also, this was a fun quiz: My Spanish Vocabulary Size is about: 【22927】! What about you?

19. Always being in the middle of a book makes me a better conversationalist. Maybe even a better small talk-er! It’s such an easy thing to ask someone if they’ve ready any interesting books lately and leads to some fantastic conversations and recommendations. I enjoy finance books, and have read many of them, but I’m starting to get into anthropology books more lately. (James Suzman!) I was also recently impacted by Bruce Lee’s biography written by his daughter. “Be Water, My Friend.”

20. Being judgmental is a hard habit to break. Mindfulness kind of helps with this – at least I’m aware I’m doing it, so I can redirect my thoughts.

21. I need a lot of time for personal reflection. I remember seeing that on an eHarmony questionnaire (back in the DAY!) asking about how much time you like to spend with your partner. I’m learning that I really need time to process my thoughts, and too much time together makes me feel overwhelmed.

22. You don’t need to ask permission to live your life. Make your choices, own them, apologize later if necessary, but don’t wait for other people’s permission. You’re the one who has to live with the outcome.

23. Saying no: I think we all know this, but boundaries are obviously important. And not only saying no, but also saying no without always having to give an explanation of why not. No is just… no.

24. Along the same lines, I’m trying to only apologize when it’s absolutely necessary. Maybe this is different from culture to culture, but we English speakers apologize (or apologise) far too often for the smallest things. I’m not sure we even mean it half the time.

25. Apologizing too much goes hand in hand with feeling guilty. I had an epiphany not too long ago where I noticed I was feeling guilty nearly all the time, about everything. For no reason. This blog post from a therapist really helped me step back and re-evaluate things.

26. Deciding to study abroad in Santander was one of the most profoundly life-changing things I ever experienced. To everyone who asks me if they should do it, I always say YES! I can’t explain the metaphysics behind it but making that decision, and the subsequent one 8 years later to move to Spain again, created a huge flow of energy that opened my life in a very new direction, which I apparently really needed.

First pitcher of sangría: January 2005. Upon moving to Spain years later, I find out that sangría isn’t really a thing here. Tinto de verano, on the other hand…

27. It may seem counterintuitive to mention budgeting when I say that I try to spend more money on quality. But budgeting puts my priorities in order and reroutes money I might spend on silly things to more important, long-lasting things. Some months I spend quite a bit more than others, but I know I’m choosing to spend on experiences and items I really care about.

28. An object in motion tends to stay in motion. I’m living proof of the fact that moving houses can be kind of addictive. I’m not sure if I move so much now because I’m just always in motion, or if I should settle down a bit, who knows?

29. A lot of my mental energy is spent contemplating the past and possible alternatives to past events. This includes nostalgia, walks down memory lane, looking at old photos, remembering people I used to be close to and places I lived, and reconstructing conversations that have already happened. The pandemic is helping me shift out of that mindset and spend more mental energy in the present. In fact, being present doesn’t really use up much mental energy because it’s just being aware. Silence, meditation, reflection.

30. I don’t “feel” very American. Nobody ever guesses that I’m American on the first guess. (They always guess French or German.) I don’t exude red white and blue patriotism, I suppose? Probably because I spend the majority of my time with people who are also not American. I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything or like I don’t have an identity, though. Why do we need to identify ourselves so strongly with with being from one country or another? The whole concept of separate countries hasn’t even been around all that long. Tribalism and belonging, sure, but that’s very different.

Avoidant or ambivalent attachment to this place?

31. Teaching English is a way of meeting my need for attention and for people to listen to me. Haha. Okay, not that I need people to Listen To Me, but it’s fun having a captive audience and has really helped boost my confidence. Next up: maybe taking an acting class?

32. I’ve come to love simple traveling. I always took short and simple trips growing up, but I really appreciate being able to go to new destinations by car or train. Discovering hidden corners of Spain has been such a fun experience. Would I like to travel further abroad? Sure, but I’m not going crazy to get out of here, even after having to stay locked in this country for the last year.

Sieste: a hidden corner of Aragón

33. Active friendship is a priority. An ongoing give and take relationship where we actively contribute to each other’s lives. Another pandemic outcome: not wanting to give so much energy where I’m not really receiving any back. It seems like we’ve all closed ourselves up a bit this year, but coming into the post-pandemic era I’m being more clear about my friendship needs. Maybe this is along the same lines as budgeting, but with my emotional energy.

34. Going along with the minimalist movement, including Marie Kondo-ing my belongings, has simplified my life in many ways. Less spending, less wants, making do with what I have and coming up with creative solutions. I started doing this back in 2015, I remember it clearly: laying out ALL my clothes on my bed in my Castro Urdiales apartment, deciding whether they sparked joy, and donating the rest. It makes moving apartments and between countries much easier. I even Marie Kondo-ed my old high school and college photo albums. Once you start, it’s kind of hard to stop!

Minimalism: the only way I could live in this tiny bedroom in Madrid

35. Participating in the sharing economy is another way to stay minimalist, recycle old things, reduce carbon footprints, and even make a bit of small talk. Uber isn’t really a thing where I live, and I’m glad it’s not, but I do make use of Airbnb when I travel sometimes. I use Blablacar for travel and Wallapop for selling things I no longer need and occasionally buying a few things. My experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, which has strengthened my trust in people. And hey, it’s benefited my wallet by earning me some extra cash or saving me money when I travel.

36. Diets. Okay, I’m definitely not a dieter, but I do experiment with different ways of eating at different times to see how they feel. Gluten-free, sugar-free, low-carb, plant-based. It’s hard finding the right balance and it’s impossible for every single thing we eat to make us feel good all the time. And on top of that, being environmentally sustainable and ethical – it’s all a lot of pressure! I recently realized I spend more than enough time thinking about food. Now I’d like to just enjoy it.

37. Speaking of diets, going on regular information diets is a good way to reset the brain. A recent email from Mind Cafe states, “The term ‘information diet’, or rather, ‘low-information diet’, comes from Tim Ferriss’s ‘The Four Hour Workweek’. He explains that the key to maintaining mental focus and clarity is to reduce the number of things you give your attention to.” That means eliminating news on TV, newspapers, and radio. I also include social media here, yet again, because those feeds are full of news, or people’s opinions about news. Speaking of which, just a few minutes scrolling Instagram makes me feel guilty (see #25) for not being woke enough, or activist enough. Unplug from that and take a break. We aren’t going to solve all the world’s problems by doom-scrolling.

38. No need to be shy about it: Therapy is great. I haven’t been to a psychologist in a few years, but when I have in the past, they’ve been so helpful. They ask the right questions and help you find your own right answer. There’s really no need for stigma around this, we all need a little extra support sometimes. Americans are pretty much on board with the benefits of therapy, but Spain is still getting there. Some of my students call me “our psychologist” – I see that as a positive sign.

So here we are: arriving to 38 with a lot of lessons learned and mistakes made. Hopefully this year I continue learning from the past and looking forward to the future while staying focused on the present.

Cheers, my friends!🍷