By: Danielle Michaud, Project HEAL Blog Manager
A few weeks ago ushered in my 28th birthday, a day I’ve always loved. In reflection, a barrage of memories pass through my mind – elaborately decorated Winnie-the-Pooh cakes as a preschooler, being surrounded by love and warmth of family, and, of course, my tradition of always pausing to appreciate the details of a gift, taking special care to reflect upon handwritten cards and delicately avoiding tearing the pretty packaging. (The last habit – maybe better described as something of a quirk – drove my siblings to frustration upon many Christmases as they waited with impatient anticipation to open their boxes. Sorry, not sorry.) As I reached my teen years, I would designate the week in which my birthday fell as a “birthday week” – not out of egocentricism, but because of my brimming excitement to extend the festivities with people for that much longer.
The past few birthdays, however, have been decidedly different for me. I know some people would roll their eyes as I vaguely lamented getting older, saying, “Don’t worry – you’re only in your 20s! You’re still young!” I typically drop the subject at this point. To an extent, I suppose I could frame my frenzied thoughts on approaching 30 as a “quarter-life crisis,” although a) this so-called crisis has been ongoing for years, and b) I recognize I have already slightly edged past that phase. Even so, my most recent birthdays have sparked more of a somber personal inventory of my life.
Tremendous value lies in the ability to be honest with yourself, taking stock in past events, the present picture, and where the future might lead. However, I realized there is an important difference between an honest assessment, a highlighting of weaknesses and strengths, as well as identifying some short-term goals and longer-term aspirations – as opposed as crossing the line into rumination, swimming in a pool of regret. I will admit it – a decent part of my self-dialogue, when not spun out on anxiety, is a continuous rehashing of opportunities missed, mistakes I’ve made. The accumulation of these thoughts adds to negative mental tapes playing on loop, which are actually a form disparaging self-talk.
Having that realization was more powerful for me than I might have initially expected. I admit I had previously thought I had a good self-talk game going, particularly when problem-solving in complicated situations. Although we cannot control every thought which passes through our minds, we have a degree of control in how we respond to them. So do I continue to tear myself down, or do I instead look myself in the eye, recognize my truths, remind myself I’m human, and continue to move on with the moment -instead of allowing fear, regret, and shame to paralyze me?
Changing the cycle of negative thinking takes time, requiring fine-tuned awareness, perhaps even strict vigilance over thoughts, reframing, challenging, or putting aside the ones that are ultimately toxic to true well-being. My annual inventory has not been totally off-base – I think my realization that I’m not fully living my life is grounded in validity. Admittedly, even for someone who has never meshed with the idea of a five-year plan, I am often haunted by this idea. Although I’ve made strides, I also have the tendency to retreat as bits of life pass me by. But to break this cycle, I must continue to edge out of my comfort zone, not letting self-destructive thoughts dim my light in isolation.
So, as I begin my 28th year, I remind myself of my decision to take a more curious approach instead of focusing on the “what-ifs” or thoughts fueling a sense of inadequacy – and explore the power of saying “yes” to life.