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.