By Lauren Freier, MA, AMFT
In a world ripe with opportunity and possibility, the freedom of choice can turn into an expectation that you must gracefully embody all options. Do it all, they say, but don’t feel like you should have to do everything. You don’t have to be perfect. Just be the perfect amount of imperfect in a way that’s endearing and attractive. Not uptight. Not chaotic. Not boring. Oh, and make it all seem effortless; stress doesn’t look good on anyone.
The mixed messages are endless. Play it safe, be responsible, be careful, and be smart. But also be open, be spontaneous, be vulnerable, and be free. Plan ahead. Live in the moment. Seek love. Invest in your career. Make mistakes. Think it through. Speak out. Do what you’re told. Stay out late. Wake up early. Embrace youth. Act maturely. Be sexy. Be sweet. Set boundaries. Be flexible. Follow your heart. Keep your head on straight. Travel. Work. Spend. Save. Commit. Explore. Dizzy yet? RELAX.
Be it all, just don’t be too anything. Otherwise what happens? Pain. Fear. Judgment. Shame. Criticism. Feeling on top of the world and entirely swallowed by it all at the same time. Loosen the reins, but don’t let go of them. Good…now stop flinching at every bump and being so scared.
To be afraid (of struggling, getting hurt, choosing wrong, or flat out failing) can be wasted energy because these are inevitable fates—not all of the time but at least some of it. Expecting any different is expecting yourself to not be human, however embracing this on both a rational and emotional level is easier said than done.
Where do you begin?
Grant yourself permission to be human. In doing so you might find that there’s a whole lot less to fear, because those dreaded outcomes that you do everything in your power to avoid are no longer make-or-breaks. They don’t define you. If someone doesn’t love you, that doesn’t make you unlovable. If you get embarrassed, that doesn’t make you an embarrassment. If you fail, that doesn’t make you a failure. Life does not follow such a linear “if…then…” path, but rather life happens to you just as much as you happen to life. Take it all in, allow people to help, and set high (but still realistic) standards for yourself.
Assess your needs and identify a healthy approach to advocating for them, not out of selfish or spiteful motives but from compassionate and “self-full” drives. Take stock in your resources, take responsibility for your actions, and take care of yourself.
Don’t doubt your own resilience
Sometimes things just have to get messy in order to understand what needs cleaning up. For better or for worse, some of the biggest growth experiences come from the periods of time you wish you could fast forward through, the parts that don’t always make sense in the present. Know that “[w]hen you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all” (Margaret Atwood). Seek comfort in the fact that this emotional ebb and flow serves as your growing pains. Allow yourself to feel all of the feelings, and then remind yourself that you still get to author what comes next. Call now.
Revisit your core values
If you try to do it all, it all hurts. You have to choose which things are most worth it to you. When you no longer feel like you have a choice is usually when you most need to make a really big one. It’s hard to have to choose, but it’s even harder to pretend like you don’t have to. Revisit your core values to decide where to invest, how to invest, and in whom to invest, then map out a strategy to make that image a reality.