I’ve just turned 35 and now that I am considered an adult, one of the things that gives me the sense (or illusion) that I am indeed in control of my life is making my own choices. To me, that is the true meaning of freedom: the ability to alter the course of our own life though the choices we make. I take pride in the belief that I make pretty solid decisions most of the time.
When I was younger, one thing I always longed for was guidance and direction. I so desperately wanted to be told what I should do, what’s the right path for me, how I should approach things, and how not to fail. But I did fail, I learned my lessons, and took some sharp turns along the way, but ‘tis life.
As much as I want to believe that I am actually deciding on what the next best step for me is in a given moment, I have to acknowledge that most of my life-changing moments and choices, didn’t quite feel like choices. Rather, they felt like effortless responses to where life was nudging me towards and responses to what needed to take place in my life.
These intuitive responses are what truly shaped the course of my life.
One night, while I was still living and working in Serbia, my friend and I went to have a drink at the café where a mutual friend worked. He told us that he was preparing to go work on a cruise ship. I was 22 at the time, never left my country, didn’t even have a passport. Heck, I don’t even know if I had sent an email before that. But I just knew inside “I want that too. I’m going to work on a cruise ship.” Before I knew it, it was April 2008. I was at the airport for the first time in my life, en route to Cape Canaveral, and saying goodbye to my mom like there is no tomorrow.
Being so far away from everything that was known to me was life-changing.
Yes, there are people around you, and you are not lonely, but you are truly on your own. Feeling completely alone is a unique experience that subtly changes a person. Having a glimpse of a different life changes a person. Until then, a script for what life could be for me was pretty short and involved only several potential roles, none of which felt quite fitting. But this glimpse into a variety of options expanded my vision of what life has to offer and how big and full of opportunities it can be.
After my first contract, I returned to my village in Serbia for a two-month vacation before my next contract was about to start. I knew right away that I was not going to stay in Serbia. I didn’t have a plan, other than returning to my next contract (which I got fired from; one of the best things that happened to me, but a story for another time). I didn’t know what, how, or when, but I knew that my story wasn’t meant to continue there.
By my fourth contract, working on a cruise ship felt draining and it lost its magic and excitement. I was tired of living in a shoe box and felt like it was time for a new chapter. I dreamt about going to college and settling down and grew more frustrated and anxious with where I was in life. A fleeting decision I entertained for a while was to move to Dubai and work as a flight attendant. But this was an idea based on what seemed realistic, not on what I desired.
A few months before my contract ended, I met my boyfriend, now husband. This happened to be his last contract as well, as he was moving to Austin, Texas to pursue a master’s degree in jazz performance. You probably see where this is going ;) Over a random lunch in Italy, he mentioned that I could come to Austin and go to school there. That sounded like a wonderful idea! That was it - that was my next chapter. The two of us often look back in disbelief about how little thought either of us put into moving forward with that idea. But here we are - 10 years later!
What I noticed in these instances was that when I responded to moments of opportunities and chances without controlling, pushing, and putting so much effort, life unfolded in the best possible way. Oftentimes when we find ourselves at the fork in a road, we put so much emphasis on thinking and forcing, but most of the time there is already a choice that just feels right. The choice that’s not about “shoulds” and “musts.”
If we live our life by the shoulds, there will be resistance to what we do. Things will feel heavy and draining and we will have to work really hard to justify them and explain them away with coherent responses that will appeal to our logical mind. This choice can make us feel like we’re living in someone else’s story, feeling stuck and powerless.
All the distress, anxiety, overwhelm, and pain is asking us to stop, listen, and respond. It will keep showing up until we respond in a way that honors our next becoming.
I believe that all of these “symptoms” are a way of life nudging us towards growth and is showing us that what we’re giving energy to no longer has a meaning for us. It’s showing us that we’re becoming someone a little different. Sometimes we’re not ready to hear what wants to happen, and we’re not ready to let go of the life we have because of the familiarity and comfort it gives us.
Self-awareness and introspection are your best friends when it comes to listening to what needs to happen in your life. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.
“Life is about growth and change, and when you are no longer doing either, you’ve received your first whisper. Pay attention to what makes you feel energized, connected, and stimulated. Follow your intuition, do what you love, and you will do more than succeed. You will soar.” Oprah
Many people come to therapy not being able to pinpoint why they are struggling. They just know that life isn’t fun and fulfilling, and they feel stuck, unhappy, numb, broken, anxious, or depressed.
I believe this happens when we (unconsciously) keep navigating the world with strategies and identities that were once helpful, but they no longer are. A favorite metaphor of mine for this is trying to use an outdated map to navigate around new terrain. As children, we learn who we need to be to be accepted and loved, but as we become adults, those identities may start to feel tight and uncomfortable – like an old, unfitting suit.
I remember existing and being there, but not feeling seen.
Growing up in a traditional patriarchal household meant not challenging adults, especially men. You needed to be quiet and push down your expectations, needs, and wants. One of the unspoken rules was that when adults are in the room, children have to disappear. I don’t have any memories of us sitting at the table and having meaningful conversations or sharing experiences and lessons. In my family, what children had to say was irrelevant.
A specific memory that comes to mind is one of my dad coming home from work and whoever was sitting in the “good” chair had to get up. No one ever questioned this and over time we would make sure that this chair is empty for him to sit in. The same was with the TV. We had one TV in the living room/kitchen/bedroom and there was no debate as to what will be on. My dad had a saying that when he watches TV (his favorite past-time was, and still is, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee while watching sports) he must not hear a fly. Meaning my mom, my sister, and I had to be quiet. When we were silent and unnoticed, we were rewarded by him not being angry.
This was working, until it wasn’t.
These and many other instances, were something I haven’t thought about much throughout my life. I cognitively understood these experiences and promised myself that I am not going to have that type of marriage and that kind of life. But these messages were engrained in me so strongly that I wasn’t aware of how they were still playing out in my life as an adult.
That is, until I found myself in situations in which I had to either speak up, have an opinion, share about myself, be visible and noticed, and have a voice of my own.
Through continuous self-reflection, questioning, and learning, I realized that I was most comfortable when I am unnoticed, don’t bother anyone, don’t ask for what I want, don’t express anger and frustration, when I’m quiet and invisible, when I make myself small, and when I anticipate other’s needs and put mine aside.
I wanted more from life.
Over time, I realized those old identities didn’t feel right anymore. The life I wanted, required me to let those identities go and learn new ways of being. I was no longer that helpless child being at the mercy of its environment. I didn’t have to make myself small and invisible just because that was something I knew how to do well. Those behaviors helped me survive in my family but keeping them didn’t feel necessary anymore.
Questions to ask yourself.
Now as an adult you can learn how to give yourself what you need.
You can cultivate love and self-compassion for yourself as you are, with all the strengths and imperfections that you may deem so unacceptable.
You can welcome all parts of yourself and feel worthy without punishing yourself for your internal experiences. You can learn how to create a new map for the life you want and choose how you want to be instead of being driven by old patterns.
You can be you again.
I love my mornings! It’s my favorite time of the day! I love its quietness, peace, and the possibilities inherent in the beginning of a new day. Mornings for me represent an opportunity, a new chance to hope, plan, reflect, and create intention about the day ahead of me.
This wasn’t always the case.
Over the course of the years, when my life was unpredictable and directionless, I was always rushed, mindlessly going through the motions, daydreaming of being in a different life, while doing the same thing over and over again. The last thing I wanted to do is to be present and allow myself to acknowledge my anxiety and fear about the future. It was easier to push those experiences down and not feel any of the feelings.
When I worked on cruise ship, I lived in a tiny room with two bunkbeds. Of course, this meant having to engage with another person as soon as you open your eyes (introvert’s worst nightmare!). At that time, my morning routine included smoking a cigarette while feeling anxious about the day ahead. It set the tone for the entire day and my life at the time.
It’s not to say I did not have a lot of wonderful experiences and fun memories during that time in my life. I had an opportunity to travel to the most beautiful places in the world and work with people from around the world. But I rarely noticed and cherished them as they happened, never slowed down enough to appreciate and be grateful for those moments, experiences, and people.
The big shift for me happened during my undergrad studies during my mindfulness course.
I learned about the power of being present and intentional. Over time I developed a morning routine and having a quiet time for myself was a game changer. Currently, my mornings include meditation, journaling, setting my intention for the day, spending time on visualization, and after that, a workout. And of course, I drink my coffee for a looooooong time… However, I do not like to be rigid with my routine, so if there is something that is needing my attention, like a creative idea, I try to go with it and give it my time.
Why is this important, you may ask?
When we quiet down and tune out the noise around us, we have no choice but to hear what is going on inside. When we are sad, hopeless, plagued by pain, resentment, anxiety, self-criticism, shame, or any other painful experiences and thoughts, slowing down and being quiet is going to be difficult because it amplifies those experiences. It is like a mirror in front of you reflecting everything as it is, with no distortion. We will want to push it away and ignore it; we will want to be busy, and we may find comfort in the noise, chaos, and constant doing. We will desperately want to pretend that what we don’t like about ourselves and about our life isn’t real, and we will want to silence that inner voice and feeling that comes up to tell us that something isn’t right.
Can you benefit from having a morning routine?
If you’re rushing from one thing to the next most of the time and not feeling like you choose how you spend your time, if it frequently feels like you’re not in charge of your life, if you feel like you’re constantly avoiding problems and it feels as if things are out of your control, then having alone time is essential. Setting your intention and creating purpose early in the day will make a big difference in how you show up in your life.
This is a great way to start creating a healthy sense of responsibility for your life.
You will be able to decide where to focus your time, you will be able engage in tasks, people, and thoughts that will propel you to have a sense of control over your life, one day at a time. Over time you will realize you are not merely a bystander in your life watching things unfold. Maybe at some point this was the case, but now, you get to decide what role you want to play in your life.
Fully lived life is not free of pain and difficulty.
You will experience events that are out of your control. But you will have the opportunity to choose how you respond to the things coming your way (the things you CAN control) instead of reacting on autopilot.
Things you can spend time in the morning to connect to yourself and be still:
You might think “Who has time for that?!” or “I’m not a morning person,” or “I have kids that I need to keep alive.” Sure, those are valid reasons, but see if there is even one small thing you can do differently to make your mornings start on a positive note.
Here are few suggestions to start with:
1.If your mornings are chaotic with people and noise while everyone is trying to get ready, try waking up before everyone just early enough to sneak away for a few minutes for yourself in peace and quiet.
2.If you work such hours that you wake up later, you can still do this at the time when it is best for you.
3.If the circumstances don’t allow you for any “me-time,” try to engage in positive thoughts right after waking up while you’re still in bed, before starting your day.
4.Reflect on what could get in a way of you creating a more peaceful, intentional morning routine, and why it would be difficult to be quiet for a bit and tune out all the noise.