Last night, I spent a few hours catching up with a friend of mine. She and her husband now have an adorable 13-day-old little baby girl who joined us for what I deemed a “girls’ night” featuring hibachi chicken and The Ted Bundy Tapes. It was accompanied by some deep conversations that stretched from our old orthodontic work, self-image issues, bullying and life transitions.She and I are in different parts of our lives, but we’re both awkwardly transitioning from one phase to the next. She’s now a new mother with a small, budding family and I’m slowly moving myself back to school in the fall. For the both of us – both Type A personalities, complete with color-coded planners – life hasn’t been all that we expected or planned. It’s thrown us curve-balls and hurdles, paired with lessons and blessings – much like the fine wine to our cheese.
We talked about our mental health issues, medication and self-help practices. Our conversations were productive and therapeutic, and a little comical as she changed her baby’s diaper. Of the many things we shared in common one stood out to me, and I wanted to talk about it today.
I have always been a people-pleaser, and I’ve been that way basically my entire life. Sure, I’ve been stubborn and didn’t always adhere to the rules, but I’ve ultimately always aimed to make people happy; I’ve always wanted people to like me. I’ve accomplished this in multiple ways: repeating behaviors reinforced by my parents’ or peers, doing things that positively stood-out, being polite and agreeable and, as I did in high school, spent an outrageous amount of time getting ready in the morning.
When I’ve failed to meet others’ standards of me or if they simply don’t like me, my reaction is usually filled with disappointment and anxiety. It’s like I’ve had to impress people to be happy – I get a high off of others’ positive reactions to whatever I’m doing.
So I’ve always aimed to please, avoiding the anxiety that surrounds the disappointment in peoples’ faces when I let them down. I’ve focused more on how other people felt about me than how I felt about me.
Then I left Chapel Hill (Mia, why do you keep bringing this up?!) and I felt like I’d let everyone in my life down. I was the third consecutive generation in my family to attend UNC and my parents were beyond thrilled when I enrolled there in 2015. My friends and teachers from high school were always asking me about school and telling me how proud they were of me. When I got to college, I gained even more friends, both students and professors, who applauded me for going to such an esteemed university.
I rode this high in Chapel Hill for nearly three years, fighting the tug in my heart that kept telling me that I was unhappy. My friends and family slowly watched me break down. I’d call my dad in hysterics almost weekly, I stopped living in the moment and I became completely consumed with just pushing forward, towards graduation.
The first time I told my dad that I wanted to leave school was during spring break of my sophomore year. Right before heading back to school, I broke down in tears and told him how miserable I was, but he reminded me of how hard I’d worked to go to UNC and I agreed with him, so I went back. I didn’t want to let my parents down and I didn’t want to let myself down, either.
A shy ten months later, I medically withdrew from school.
My junior year was a constant battle for me. I barely slept (maybe 2-4 hours a night), I overate to the point that I would regularly get sick and I started to skip a lot of my classes. I wanted so badly to succeed because I felt like the whole world was watching and rooting for me but I was slowly crumbling, and I knew that better than anyone else.
I finally made the executive decision to leave UNC last February, telling my parents that I would return in the fall (something that I had fully intended to do at the time), but the longer I was home and the more I began to heal, I realized how unhappy I was living in Chapel Hill and how unhealthy it would be for me to return.
So I mustered up the courage to tell my dad about this first. It didn’t go over very well, mainly due to the fact that I was so nervous that I thought I was going to be sick and I could barely choke out the words in-between sobs. He didn’t respond that well, either. He was angry and disappointed and that hurt me and I felt like I’d done something wrong and, as he stormed out of my room, I felt as if I was being punished.
I told my mom a few months later, dreading her response most of all. She was my biggest advocate for going to UNC; I always thought she was kind of vicariously living through my experience and I didn’t want to let her down in the way that I had done my father. I called her on the phone with my friend Hannah sitting next to me and my voice shook and my eyes welled over with tears as I (more coherently this time) told her my decision. Her reaction was also unexpected: she was, and still is, the biggest supporter of my decision to leave Chapel Hill. My nerves calmed immediately as she told me in a soothing voice of which only your mother can have: “I can’t say I didn’t see this coming, but it’s okay. It’s your life and you have to do what is going to be best for you and what is going to make you happy.”
During those few months, I continued to talk with my therapist about my constant state of anxiety around leaving UNC. Sure, some of it was spurred by the fact that I was acting out against my whole life’s plan, but I expressed my worry to her over Skype one day, saying, “I don’t know… I just feel like a failure. Everyone expected me to graduate from there, and now I’m not going to. I feel like I’ve let everyone down.”
“There you go again, using the word ‘feel’ instead of ‘think’,” she reminded me, “You can’t feel like a failure; it’s not an emotion. You can only think of yourself as a failure, and do you really think of yourself as a failure?”
I shook my head, elaborating: “I mean, I know I’m not a failure, but I’m afraid that other people will think that I am.”
“You’re trying to see the world through other peoples’ eyes,” she said, “If you keep doing that, you’ll never be happy. The only eyes you need to be looking through are your own. It’s hard, but with practice, you’ll get better at it and, by the time you’re my age, you just won’t give a shit what people think about you anymore.”
Her words have really stuck with me since that initial conversation. Through the next few months, we had multiple talks about re-adjusting my focus to only worry about my own views of myself, and not others’. Over the course of the last year, I’ve managed to strengthen this practice. I’ve grown more as an individual than I could have had I remained in school and I’m happy that I left. I’ve stopped caring about what people might think about my decision because, at the end of the day, I know what I’m doing with my life and I have a plan, and it’s really no one else’s business but mine.
It’s been a complete cognitive adjustment for me and I still haven’t perfected it. Sometimes I still lose sleep at night thinking about that humiliating thing I said at work four months ago or about how I know I’ve disappointed my parents more than they might let on, but I’ve learned that, though that thing might have been embarrassing and my parents might be a little let down, it really doesn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. This is my life and I’m here to live it for myself, so I owe it to myself to do what is best for me.
Sipping on her sweet tea while trying to feed her almost-two-week-old, my friend and I laughed in agreement over the shared sentiment that she was more than right to not allow random people to kiss her baby, even if it meant she came across as a bitch – “I don’t care if they think I’m being a bitch, she’s my baby and you’re not kissing her!”
Until next time,
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