When I graduated college in 2016, I was terrified. Until then, my life had a familiar, comforting structure. You knew what to do next: finish school. Being a good student was pretty clear cut. I thrived on doing well so much that it was unhealthy - my self-esteem was closely intertwined with my grades, and when I didn't perform as well as I wanted, I berated myself. Leaving school and landing a great job didn't make me feel any less restless, and I had an unnerving yearning to reconnect with toxic people, a nostalgia for unstable periods of my life. My sense of self shrunk. I realized that, prior to graduating, I only knew myself as a relative: relative to friends, to school, to my community, to my status as a student. I didn't know myself as an absolute.
It was like I was walking around in a dark room, feeling for something I didn't know was there. I realize why now, being on the other end of it. I had such a deep lack of understanding of myself that it permeated every aspect of my life, and accordingly, I suffered. I had an unhealthy perception of myself. My dreams were hazy and small. I allowed myself to be treated poorly, and rationalized why it was okay, because my sense of self-worth was hovering just above rock bottom. It was only when I truly endeavored to understand myself and get at the core of who I was that I could shed the negativity and grow. It wasn't a linear process, I had help along the way, and there's no such thing as a destination, but I believe it is central to why my confidence has risen, why I've been able to dream big again and take healthy risks, and why I've learned to spot toxicity (both in myself and others) and work to eliminate it.
I share this because I think without it, we fail to meaningfully tackle problems in our lives. These problems can range from struggling to kick a small habit to being in abusive relationships. It's easy to identify external factors when it comes to personal suffering, but it's incredibly challenging to explore hard truths about ourselves, our upbringings, and how comfortable familiarity makes us gravitate towards people and experiences we've been through before, no matter how damaging. We minimize our personal choices when we take ourselves out of the equation, and by doing that relinquish power. We unconsciously perpetuate patterns in our lives and wonder how these same kinds of people or problems manage to find us, but spend little time questioning what role our expectations, mindsets, and habits play in drawing them to us. This doesn't mean negative people and circumstances don't exist. It doesn't mean victims should be blamed or are responsible for their hardships. It also doesn't mean that it's possible to cultivate a state of being wherein nothing bad will ever happen to us. It just means that the better prepared we are to experience life, the more stable the ground under our feet will feel, the stronger and more self-assured we can be when implementing solutions, and the less likely we'll fall into the same traps repeatedly. This preparation is entirely internal.
The following are things that I thought about (and still think about) as I came to this place of understanding. I think it's incredibly beneficial to really dive deep into these questions, write down your answers, or discuss them with someone you can be vulnerable with. For me, that person has been my fiancé, who always listens to me with an open heart and reflections of his own.
1) What was your upbringing like? Were you in a stable and secure household financially and emotionally? How did your parents interact with and treat each other and you? How does this relate to how you view yourself now?
2) Did you have a strong sense of community? If not, how has that impacted how you operate among others? If so, how does your community influence the way you trust others? Do you feel safe to be yourself? Did you experience anything traumatic that affects the way you open up to people?
3) Are there any patterns in the treatment you experience from non-family members that you're close to? If they're negative, what are they? Why do you think you tolerate this treatment? Do you expect them to change? If so, what drives the hope that they will?
4) What is your self-esteem tied to, if anything? Why is it tied to that thing? Can you remember times you were specifically praised or criticized for it? Do you think that's had a lasting effect on your confidence?
5) What makes you angry? Do you think they're reasonable things to get angry over? Why or why not? Does your anger spiral out of control, or are you capable of staying calm?
6) What are some of your enduring habits? Can you recall when you developed them? If you haven't already, spend a week observing and taking down what triggers you to engage in the habit.
7) Do you feel you've lead a life of relative certainty or uncertainty? How has that influenced the way you live your life now, and how you cope with unknowns?
8) What are your strongest values? List as many as you can. Why are they so important to you?
9) In an ideal world, what would your biggest dream be? What is central to that dream? (For example, central to the dream of being a successful actress could be the desire to be famous/well-known). Why is that important to you? Do you feel proud of it or ashamed of it?
10) Does the desire for attention and approval from others drive you? Why is that as important to you, or more important, than your own approval?
I think it's illuminating to revisit these questions over and over again. You may have new answers as you evolve. In my opinion, they're a good starting place, and they push you to explore who you are, but you have to be willing to be brutally honest with yourself. Don't just reply with answers you wish were true - boldly state the reality. The clearer you can be with yourself, the better. If you don't know, keep digging. Look at the question from another angle. Talk to someone you trust. Challenge yourself to be willing to accept and work to change behaviors or mindsets you don't like. It's about growth, and emotional and difficult as the process may be, it can only serve us to know who we are, unfiltered.
Let me know what your experience is answering these questions, and if you found them helpful. Leave a comment, or reach out to me privately if you prefer not to publicly respond. What do you think was the most eye-opening question?