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Five Things I’ve Learned by Thirtysomething (Okay, 34 To Be Exact)

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Picture it: Fall 2003, a young 17-year-old Cherrelle nearing her high school graduation. She begins to write her 10-year plan (as instructed by a teacher)...

“I will go to college then grad school, then I’ll be working my dream job ( not yet identified) making 6, no 7 figures, I’ll own several companies (in God’s knows what), be married and have 2 kids ( son and daughter). I’ll be 27, turning 28 so I should be close to retirement by this time. I guess I’ll just travel the world until I’m 30 and do some volunteer work with the Peace Corps.”

Now, let’s all laugh together!

I mean seriously, WTF? Honestly, I’m wondering how the adults in my life even listened to the crap I was spewing out. I mean, isn’t it their ethical duty to tell us that life doesn’t work like that? Perhaps if they did, I still wouldn’t have listened. I was a stubborn little thing at the time and quite sassy (still am).

So here I am, 34, single, no kids, nowhere near being rich. Not even close to retirement. I’ve traveled some, but definitely not the world, and certainly haven’t joined the Peace Corps. And won’t.

But here’s what I’ve learned throughout my 20s and early 30s – and hope you can learn from, too:

1. External Happiness is Not Internal Happiness

It doesn’t take much to journey back a decade and revisit my 24 year old self. Thankfully, I’ve saved almost every journal I’ve ever written. The journal I was using at the time was an 8x10 wire bound pink notebook which, surprisingly is still intact, even though the cover is worn and faded, pages brown and some tattered.

A quick flip through would show tons of mindless doodles and random drawings, the occasional budget (something I haven’t quite mastered), and a few poems scattered about. A deeper look would reveal heartfelt entries of a young woman that had clearly left childhood but not quite ready to embrace adulthood.

I was one full year out of graduate school and one year into my career. I was working as a therapist at a partial hospitalization program with people struggling with chronic mental illness such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and people diagnosed with personality disorders.

It was a wonderful job that set the tone for my career. I got the chance to work alongside and be mentored by some amazing therapists, many of whom I consider friends today.

Yet this was an interesting period. I’d begun living a completely different version of my previous life. New city, new career, new car. I made new friends, I had a nice apartment, and I was in a relationship with someone I was very much in love with.

After busting my ass and scraping by all through college, things were finally falling into place.

But you want to know something interesting?

Nearly none of my journal reflects this perspective. Literally the first line of the first page reads “Will it ever get better?” followed by endless pages of self-pity, self-doubt, contemplating the complexities of the universe, and rants and poems from the depths of despair.

Anxiety had crept its way into my seemingly picture perfect life, though it would take another year for me to acknowledge it as such. The road to recovery was both painful and beautiful, yet confirmed for me that I wanted to make mental wellness my life’s work.

2. Validation from Others Isn’t Everything

Externally, I was achieving the goals and acquiring the things I was always taught to aspire to. However, that did little for my mental and emotional well-being. No matter how hard I worked or what I achieved, I still somehow felt inadequate or that I could be doing more.

I was desperately seeking validation from the people in my life. People would tell me all the time how proud they were of me. But on the inside, I was screaming, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” It seemed as though everyone except me had their life figured out.

One journal entry read:

“It seems we’re conditioned to believe we’re supposed to achieve certain things in order to have to gain society’s seal of approval. We’ve become primed to view life as one comprehensive checklist in which we are to master in order to gain the respect of our peers.

  1. Graduate high school…check

  2. Go to college…check

  3. Get a career…check

  4. Get married…

  5. Have kids…

  6. Raise kids...

  7. Retire…

  8. Die…

We’re to follow the list and complete tasks.

Within a certain time to avoid the judgements of society, side eye of grandparents and criticisms of parents.

Or to ourselves feel successful. I don’t feel successful at all.”

I was making my way through the list and didn’t feel any more confident than when I was in high school. I went on to write,

“When does this get easier because certainly there has to be more to life than this? Right? Is this all I have to look forward to? Working for the weekend, maybe one vacation a year?”

3. Life Shouldn’t Be A Checklist

It’s easy to Xerox a generic checklist for a person’s life, then judge them by their ability to adhere to standards and reach goals that they weren’t invited to create. We’re seriously telling our kids to pick careers to commit to for the rest of their lives before they’ve ever had room to explore and get to know themselves. Then we label them as “indecisive” and “irresponsible” if they change majors, pursue alternate career paths, drop out, or start a family before they’re “ready.”

Why can’t we create our own lists? Maybe my list doesn’t include kids, or marriage right after college. Maybe my list doesn’t include any of those things at all. Perhaps my list is as mutable and fluid as me, I am ever-changing. And so are you.

At 27, I’d embarked on a spiritual journey that forced me to challenge certain “truths” about life and changed the trajectory of the way I not only looked at life but the way I moved through life.

My 28th birthday was a symbolic “to hell with your list” year. And I’ve been actually living in between the check marks ever since. I like it here, at the intersection of “grown-up” and “making it up as I go.”

4. Stop watching the Social Clock

I sometimes feel like an odd commodity living in a small town where the mindset is a little more, well…traditional. If I had a dollar for every time I heard, “You don’t have kids yet, whatcha waiting on?” or, “You better have a child before you get too old.” Or the classic, “Oh, so you’re not married…bless your heart.”

“Bless your heart” is Southern for “you poor unfortunate soul.” Sometimes the “bless your heart” is even accompanied by a light pat on the shoulder, you know, for an emphasis on the "sucks to be you".

By 30, I no longer participated in the unwarranted guilt associated with not being married or having children - or fully understanding taxes.

Side note: Please stop blessing my heart.

5. You Have Time

March 13th, 2020 marked my 34th birthday. If I could send a message to my 24-year-old self, I would tell her that no one knows what they’re doing. Some people are just good at pretending to have it figured out. We’re all scared, we’re all unsure, we’re all just making it up as we go. I’d tell her to show up, take up space, choose courage over comfort. I’d tell her that it truly does get better.

And I’ll tell you the same thing too, no matter how old you are: Look at your life. Are you adhering to a list that doesn’t fit?

If I can leave you with anything, it would be this: It has taken me 34 years to learn to truly honor where I am, to embrace the uncertainty of life and value the most precious and unrenewable resource there is - time. (Thanks Brene)

· Know that true healing will never come from the things you externally acquire, and no one outside of you can validate your worth. You are exactly where you are meant to be.

· It is never too late to start a family, change careers, go back to school, travel, start a business, live a completely different version of your life. It will never serve you to compare your life to others. Know that you will best serve others by first serving yourself.

· Know that no amount of degrees, accolades, and possessions you acquire will satisfy your soul. While these are all definitely causes of celebration and sources of pride and award, the true reward lies in being your most authentic self and honoring where you are in life.

May you be patient with yourself. May you stop comparing your life to others. May no one bless your heart. May you understand how taxes work.

Until then, I’ll be here kind of grown up but mostly making it up as I go. Flawed and awkward, yet passionate and gentle.

This is me. This is 34.

Peace, Love & Juice

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