Saturday, February 2, 2013

serious saturday: how I (almost) ruined my life

For the past month or so, I think I've been having a midlife crisis. I know I'm just in my 20s, but maybe I'm just going to die young, because that's exactly what it feels like. I've been questioning everything I've done up to this point, and wishing I could just scrap most of it and start over. Some days, I feel like marrying my husband is the only thing I've gotten right.

Most of this centers around my job, which is exactly the job I went to college + grad school for. I do applied behavior analysis therapy with kids on the autism spectrum; it's challenging, rewarding, and I absolutely adore the kids I work with.  I have a good job, with benefits, discounts, and a steady income. It's not hard labor, and I get to go to sleep at night knowing that I've made a permanent positive impact in several children's futures. The company I work for is a good company, and they provide quality services that are respected in the community. I'm also miserable. I dread going to work most days. If you read my journal, you'd think I was being tortured in a third world country. So what's the deal?

I've done a lot of reflecting over the past few weeks and a lot of talking to my mom (hi, momma!), and I've realized that I've made a lot of mistakes over the course of my life. They could really screw up my happiness and my future, if I don't fix them now that I've discovered them. Before we go any further here, I want to establish that this is not a "poor me" post; it's motivation to get my arse in gear + make sure that the six or seven people who actually read this blog don't end up having midlife crises way too soon too. I don't feel sorry for myself one bit--if anything, I'm actually a little pissed at myself for not figuring it out sooner.

So, what did I do wrong? And how can you be better?

(1) I cared far too much about what people thought, and what their expectations of me were.
 There are a significant number of major decisions I made in my life that I based purely upon not wanting to disappoint people I care about. I don't necessarily regret most of them--I mean, I went to college because it was expected in my family, and that's a wise thing to do. However, I do regret not thinking those decisions through more thoroughly.  This is one of many reasons I ended up with not one, but two degrees that I don't want to use, and why I went into an intellectual field instead of a creative one. I truly believe that you should listen to the counsel of people around you that you respect, but you need to have your own reasons for the decisions you make. You can't completely disregard your own heart. Your opinion matters too.

(2) I had a limited definition of "helping people."
I fully believe that we need to invest in other people. I was raised by a family who supported each other + their communities. Several of my family members are known for being the type to give someone in need the shirt off their backs, and make them feel respected while doing it. One of my grandfathers put indoor plumbing in the homes of several people in his hometown, and never took a penny for doing it; another served his community in several aspects until he retired at 77. My mom has been a school teacher most of her life, reached kids that nobody else could, and volunteers with youth and in drug rehabilitation groups in her spare time. So helping people is in my DNA, and a very important part of the values I was raised with.

Somehow, I amplified this to mean that I had to dedicate my life to helping people in a helping profession. I felt like going into a different field would be selfish. One of my grandfathers did all of his helping in his spare time and was still considered by everyone who met him to be an incredibly generous and loving man; during the day, he worked for a gas company. I never considered him to be selfish by any stretch--in fact, his selfish moments (which everyone has) were so rare that I never saw him have one. As my mom told me in a recent conversation, "Your job isn't who you are; it's what you do." You can find ways to contribute without having to do it for a living, and find ways to help and inspire others while doing nearly any job. Don't limit yourself.

(3) Not being honest with myself about my personality, how I'm wired, and what I enjoy.
Confession: I'm an introvert. I like people, but being "on" in public wears me out. If I don't have downtime at home, I get super tired and cranky. This is amplified around new people (generally, being around close friends and family feels pretty much like being alone, stress-wise). I also tend to have a little bit of social anxiety. So what do I do? I jump into a career path that requires me to be around new people on a fairly regular basis, for extended periods of time. Genius, right?

I've known this about myself for a long time, but I didn't factor it into my educational and career decisions. I actually took a career inventory for a class in grad school as part of a requirement for administering the protocols. Total truth: it told me I would do well as some sort of artist, and would hate being a psychologist or counselor. So why did I ignore that? I just told myself I could do it...and I can. I've done it for almost a year at my current job. But I never asked myself if I would enjoy it. Did it fit my personality? Would I be happy doing it for years? Or would it cause me numerous stress-related health issues? Know what you enjoy, what stresses you out, and what your limitations are....and then be honest with yourself about them and how they could impact a career choice that you're considering. It will save you SO much stress in the future.

(4) I didn't consider the difference between being interested in something, and wanting to do it.
This is so essential. I love learning + talking about psychology and think it's one of the most interesting things I've ever studied. It really changes my view of people, my patience level with them, and how I see events that occur. When it comes to actually doing psychology, though, it falls apart for me. I hated our counseling labs in grad school, and almost threw up from anxiety before every single one. I liked scoring assessments, but giving them stressed me out. I mean, I like reading about cryptozoology, too, but that doesn't mean I want to go chase unicorns for a living. Just because you like something doesn't mean that you can translate it into a career you enjoy, and I can't overstate the importance of knowing the difference.

(5) I couldn't admit failure or ignorance. I felt so directionless after high school. I knew I loved doing creative things, like writing + music, but I didn't think they could be viable careers for me. So I jumped into the first thing I enjoyed learning about that I thought I could make a career out of. I needed to be able to tell people something when they asked me what I was going to do with my life. I couldn't admit that I didn't know yet, and I didn't take the time to really explore all of my options because I thought I should already know. I prayed and prayed and prayed for God to give me direction. I was always the successful, straight-A student who had her crap together, and I felt a lot of pressure to maintain that. I also went to college on scholarships, so I felt like I had to have everything lined up and just power through so I wouldn't waste money by having to pay for classes to complete a degree later.

My first semester of grad school, I knew for sure that a career in psychology wasn't for me. In undergrad, what we learned was all theory. In grad school, we had a lot of application, and I realized very quickly that I didn't want to go into this field. I broke out in shingles from the stress. But I finished that semester.....and the next......and the next......and the one after that. I got a master's degree I didn't want to use, because I couldn't admit that I was wrong and that I didn't know exactly what I wanted yet. If you aren't sure, it's okay. Take the time to be unsure, explore, and figure it out, whether you're 17 or 70.

(7) I labeled myself.
As much as I have always really loved creative endeavors, I've never been confident about them. It's so hard to judge them objectively; I know there are critics who can do it, but when I judge art, poetry, or music, it mostly comes down to simply whether or not I like it. That stresses me the heck out, because I really don't know if I'm good at it or not. I knew I was good at left-brained, intellectual endeavors, so I figured I must not be good at right-brained, creative endeavors and left it at that. Rather than open myself up to criticism, I labeled myself a non-creative and worse, I started to believe my label. Don't let anyone pin a label on you...even if the person doing it is you.

(6) I put limits on myself, my abilities, and my ability to learn.
I've always enjoyed creative things, but I realized after high school that there were several people in the world who were great at them...and I was good at best, at least in my uneducated view (to be honest, I'm still not sure where I fall). So rather than try to improve, I just went into a field I knew I could be successful in (at least academically). It was a really lazy way to go about life, if I'm being honest.  I like learning, but I hate being evaluated on things that are difficult, or things that are personal, which creative work tends to be for me. I just told myself I couldn't do it, and I referred to the label I gave myself above, without giving myself the opportunity to learn, practice, and improve.

Apart from, you know, marrying my husband, one of the best things that came out of our wedding was that this ridiculousness was finally shattered. We were on a really tight budget, and had a complete DIY wedding, even down to the food. I coordinated every bit of the decorations, and made a ton of stuff, from the boutonnieres to the cake topper. Don't get me wrong, I had a TON of incredible help in execution and some of the construction, but I actually created this vision and I am really really proud of how it turned out. Our photographer said it was the most well put together wedding he had shot, and his wife said it was by far her favorite. I don't say that to be all, "look how awesome I am," but to say that this was the point where I realized that I'm capable. I can't hide behind my self-imposed limitations. So I started doing creative things again, and I am so much happier. Do the things you love, whether you think you're good or not. And be open to other people's opinions of what you do. I've found that, most of the time, people are kind, even if they're critical. If you ask someone you respect to look at your work, rarely will they evaluate it negatively without offering a way to improve it. Know that you can always learn and grow, no matter your starting point.

(8) I didn't allow my dreams to change.
There was a point in time where I really thought I wanted to work in psychology. Even though I jumped into the degree program in undergrad without really thinking it through, I enjoyed learning about it, and I thought it was what I wanted. I dreamed about getting my PhD and helping people until I retired. More than once I had to turn down textbooks at the bookstore because I already owned them (*nerd alert*). After I realized the difference between enjoying learning about it and enjoying doing it, as I mentioned above, I felt so stuck. I had other things I wanted to do, but I had invested so much into this dream already that letting go of it seemed impossible. It was like a bad relationship that I just kept going back to out of habit. It's okay to change your mind and change your dreams.

(10) I lived in fear. 
This is by far the worst. I probably should have put it at number one. I have done this the majority of my life, and it's terrible. I'm a naturally anxious person, with a difficulty tolerating uncertainty. I want security. I realized this in grad school, and since then I've overcome it most of the time, but it's a struggle. I intentionally do things now that are out of my comfort zone, and I'm always so proud and happy afterward. It's like an adrenaline rush. For years, though, it was a different story, and it's still a daily fight to make myself do it. If I had to nail down the biggest reason I'm in this spot now, it's because I was afraid. I was afraid to try and fail. I was afraid to have a job without a predictable income. I was afraid of not being able to find a job at all. While those are considerations, so is your happiness and sanity. If you're doing this, stop it. Right now. If I could tell you one thing, it's this: do not let fear govern your life and your decisions. If you forget every other part of the blog you just read, remember this.


This was a tough blog to write, but it's been on my mind so much lately, and a couple of recent conversations have led me to believe that I'm not alone in this. Most of you probably have it so much more together than I do, but I thought there might be a couple of people this resounds with, and that makes the difficulty of writing this post worth it. If you're struggling, feel free to leave your email in the comments and I'll be more than happy to talk about it with you more. I definitely don't have all the answers, but I can tell you that I'm much more at peace having analyzed this the way I have...even though it hasn't meant any changes just yet. 

Have a beautiful weekend, folks. 


  1. I've been worrying about the same things, Jess. It's really tough, I know. But honestly, I think it's going to be okay. My boyfriend got an Audio Production degree at the Art Institute in Seattle that cost him a ton of money. For his whole life up until that point, he wanted to record musicians. A few years later, he finally decided that's not really what he wants to do. He's worked a few different jobs (newspaper reporter, videographer, web designer) but he really wants to be a photographer. I know it will make him happier than sticking to doing what he originally planned to do. We all change our minds about things, every day. It's okay to follow your dreams. Have a good day.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! I am really starting to believe the same thing--it's okay to follow our dreams. I'm definitely working on that now, and working on improving at the things I love to do. I'm much happier having it out in the open. :)

  2. Sometimes I feel like you and I are so much alike its scary (nerd, introvert, creative, Anglophile, etc.). I'm having the same crisis and am nowhere close to figuring it out either. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who feels like I'm falling apart at the seams some days! I hope the next couple of years will bring more clarity and a better sense of direction. In the meantime, I hope I'll recognize the right opportunity and have the guts to grab it and not let go!

    1. I have thought that about us so many times! :) I know we aren't alone in this crisis, either. It's really crazy how many private messages popped up in my Facebook inbox after I posted the link to this blog. So many people are going through this exact same thing--even people our parents' age. I got messages from complete strangers on twitter who read it & were struggling.

      I was talking to a good friend of mine yesterday and told him I'm struggling with direction and forward motion now. I don't know what the next step is. Starting over means I'm behind and need to get my butt in gear; he told me to choose journey over destination, and I think that was a very wise piece of advice. It gave me a lot of peace. Hopefully soon we'll both have a better idea of where we're headed...and we won't forget to enjoy the process of getting there. :)

  3. I can relate to 6 of these problems. I have been switching between possible jobs that I think I might be interested in or could be good at. It's all plans right now but in a year I will have to make a choice. I'm afraid it all might not work out or that I just cannot find the right thing. I hope that in ten years from now I'll be on the right path but for now I'm still struggling with all of this.
    I feel relieved that I am not the only struggling with these things and knowing it at the same time. I know a lot of people who THINK they want something but clearly have not thought it through. However you are aware of these things. I'm really glad that I came across your blog! Thank you!

    1. Thanks so much for reading! It can be so intimidating to try and make sure we're doing things that will be right for us 10 years from now. One of my (much wiser) friends told me to remember that there is no choice I can make that will put me in a place where I don't have any more choices. I think that takes a lot of the pressure off, even though I still definitely want to make sure I'm doing the right thing.

      Good luck in your journey! If you figure out any good strategies along the way, be sure to let me know! :)

  4. Jess... you are not the only one... In college, I choose something that was a major because I had to find one immediately. I stepped away from my original thoughts because who can have a career in Art... Anyways, I honestly stepped out of one situation/position I knew was not right for me and moved into another position not knowing if it was the right move or not. And at that time, I didn't care. Now almost 4 years later, I'm trying to figure out what I did wrong and feeling "stuck" in my position again. I read something today that sometimes success does not find us until we are 65. I want to find myself before that point... If you ever need someone to hash out life, I'm your gal... Your problems you listed are the same ones I have been discovering that I have issues with. Now at almost thirty I'm looking into jobs and not sure where to go next. Thank you for being so honest and hitting home when I have been searching for answers myself

    1. Ah, it sounds like we have so much of the same story. It's the "stuckness" that I'm dealing with right now--not knowing how to move forward or what direction to even move in.

      Loved that post you included; what's crazy is that the guy she quotes is actually a friend of mine; we went on vacation three years ago, and a few conversations with him during that week were actually what made me start looking at myself differently (and honestly). I will never forget when I made a comment about being Type A; he looked shocked, and said, "Really? I see you as more of a free spirit." That was when I began reevaluating the labels and limitations I had given myself.

      We should get coffee soon. I need more creative souls around me. The fact that you're in pretty much the same situation I am is just a bonus. :)

  5. I feel like I've read this before... But for some reason I was led back to it this evening and really (one again!) appreciated the insight. And i can tell you that No. You're not alone.

    But 2 other thoughts...
    1) Your mother whom I already love beyond words... is a genius.

    "Your job isn't who you are; it's what you do." You can find ways to contribute without having to do it for a living, and find ways to help and inspire others while doing nearly any job. Don't limit yourself."

    Whether it was meant for you or me at the time is irrelevant... because tonight, it just made the stars align in my life! Once again reminding me why i love you both so much.

    2) And i say this with the full weight i know you know it carries...

    I've said it before many times and I'll say it again (as many times as you need in fact!) If you run away tomorrow to peruse music, I promise you'll have my full support. <3

    Love you.


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