When I was a kid, I was a total people pleasing, overachieving, perfectionist. I grew up in a dysfunctional family where parents hit each other, said cruel and nasty things to one another on a regular basis, and told their daughters that they were worthless or better hope to marry rich one day. I didn’t want to add to the dysfunction so I focused on doing things that I thought would please my parents to decrease their fighting and so others wouldn’t know how bad things were at home. I worked hard to get good grades, I cleaned the house after school, played sports I didn’t particularly enjoy, and acted like everything was perfectly normal and fine.
It wasn’t until I left home for college, just a year and a half after my father’s death, where I realized just how much I had been doing to please others. How I had been living in a façade where I was acting like everything was great on the outside, when I felt anything but on the inside. I started questioning what I had done up until then and examining each of my choices carefully. Like, why was I even at this college to begin with? When I realized it was because it was where all 3 of my older sisters and my dad had attended and thought of how I hadn’t even applied to another college, everything became a question. Why was I maintaining old childhood friendships that didn’t really fit me anymore? Why was I tolerating my mom’s constant input into how I should be living my life? Why was I allowing my sisters to guide me when their choices clearly weren’t working out for them? Why was I listening to what society said I should be doing, how I should look and dress, or how I should define success?
I dropped out of college. With one semester remaining, with my mom and sisters begging me not to, and with no plan in place. I disappointed everyone who knew me. I disappointed them hard. I moved to San Francisco without a job and without a place to live. I disappointed them even more. I began considering what I really wanted out of life and what success looked like to me. I didn’t know too much but I did know that a good life included people who were genuine and unconcerned with living up to others’ expectations; a job that gave me flexibility, freedom, and pride; and my feeling good about who I was and where I was headed.
I’ve since gone on to disappoint way more people than just my immediate family members. I’ve disappointed friends when I stopped gossiping with them, extended relatives when I’ve shared my political views, and supervisors when I’ve created boundaries. But what I’ve learned in all this disappointment is that if I would’ve focused on pleasing them, I would’ve ended up disappointing myself so much more. I would’ve created a life full of relationships I despise, people I don’t enjoy, and doing things that make my skin crawl. I would have trouble sleeping each night out of the anxiety of it all and find myself daydreaming of driving down an endless highway, leaving everyone and everything behind me. How do I know? Because I’ve worked with countless adults who’ve been so focused on creating a life that society or their family thinks is best for them that they find themselves mid-life crying, screaming, and begging for a different one.
I want you to create a life that YOU want. I want you to disappoint so many people that they’ll put it on your tombstone. I want you to have a life so true to who you are that when you’re like me and 47 years old, you can look at what you’ve created and think, “Holy crap, I’m the luckiest.” I guide you through this a bit in my book, The Emotionally Intelligent Teen, which I recommend for young adults as well.
· Figure out what you value. There are lots of ways to go about this, but Brene Brown has an easy-to-follow worksheet that will guide you through this process.
· Tune out the noise of the world. Society, family, friend groups, schools, social media, movies, advertisements, shows, and celebrities all have different ideas on what you should value and what success should look like for you. But no matter how well-intentioned some might be, their version might not be a good fit for you. Tune out the noise by tuning into yourself. Learn how to journal and meditate, it’ll be the best gift you can give yourself.
· Create non-negotiables. Once you know what you value, decide what it looks like to live by them and create some non-negotiables. Perhaps you value making a difference so you decide that your next job will allow you to live by this value. You only apply for those that fit this criterion and maintain a commitment to it.
· Get good at saying no. There are going to be people that ask you to do things you don’t want to do or who unintentionally ask you to waste your time on something you don’t value or feel good about doing. It’s far better to disappoint them with a no early on than to back out at the last second, do it haphazardly, or to resent them later.
· Pay attention to what brings you passion. Notice what you’re curious about and spend time exploring things that excite you. Pay attention to how your body responds to certain situations, people, and activities. Observe what lights you up and see how you can get more of that in your life.
· Passions require maintenance. While I want you paying attention to what lights you up, I also want you to know that passions naturally increase and decrease (Chen et al. 2021). You’re not going to feel intense passion 100% of the time (we’d burn out if we did!) and your passion in an activity will ebb and flow. When your passion is lower, it doesn’t mean you should move onto something else. It just means that you’ll need to work a bit harder to cultivate it and keep it alive. Eventually, it’ll pick back up again.
Disappointing others doesn’t always feel good in the short-term. In fact, it’s often extremely painful and hard. But the long-term benefits far outweigh the immediate hurt. It will help you create a life you love and are proud of. What’s better than that?
To learn more about mental health and building a fulfilling life for yourself, check out Dr. Melanie McNally's Therapy Bootcamp.
Chen, P.; Y. Lin; D.J.H. Pereira; P.A. O’Keefe; J.F. Yates. 2021. Fanning the Flames of Passion: A Develop Mindset Predicts Strategy-Use Intentions to Cultivate Passion. Front. Psychol. 12:634903.
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