Photo by Winj Capital
So I accidentally fibbed at the end of 5 Ways I Became a Happier Person (Part 1) when I told you Part 2 was going to be about that time life totally kicked my behind. Originally part of today’s post was going to be about how going through challenges ultimately made me a more grateful and happy person, but it just wasn’t coming together. It felt like I was rehashing a lot of the same things I’ve talked about in previous posts about how modeling/eating disorders/the fashion world broke me down but also turned me into a person I actually liked. (If you’re new here and want to hear about those topics, check out Why I Left a Piece of My Heart in Milan and Retirement of A Dream.)
Anyway, here’s what I wrote about instead…
3. I Stopped Being So Obedient and Reactive
When I went to theater camp at age 14, my counselor’s end-of-summer evaluation read something like this:
“Maya is bright, creative, and socially intelligent. She was a joy to have in my cabin! The only constructive criticism I have is that she has very little initiative. For example, Maya always cleaned her bunk area immediately when asked–but only when asked.”
Being the self-righteous perfectionist that I
am was, I felt slighted by the report. Suffice it to say I was NOT a *happy camper.*
It took me years to figure out how spot-on this young woman actually was in her assessment of my personality.
Growing up, I was a people pleaser and constantly somewhat afraid. Afraid of receiving anything less than an A on my report card. Afraid of what the ringleader of the 4th grade Cool Group thought of my outfit. Afraid of being even oh-so-gently reprimanded by a teacher. Downright terrified of making mistakes.
I was extremely obedient and malleable, and was consistently praised for it. When you think about it, success from age 5 to 22ish is generally measured by grades and you don’t actually have to be proactive to get good grades.* You just have to study, do your homework, and do what you’re told. I always trusted in the system– and the system delivered.
*Quick disclaimer: I’m not trying to make education sound like a cakewalk here, but I do feel like the formula for academic success is a bit more predictable and two-dimensional than the formula for Real World success.
But as the camp counselor said, I rarely did more than what I was told. I never challenged myself when I was younger. I was naturally good at writing and bad at math, so I didn’t take any gifted/honors/AP math classes. I was naturally good at theater and bad at sports, so I didn’t play any sports.
The thing is, reactiveness is more than just being the person with a “Suzy was mean to me so my day is ruined” mindset (although I was definitely that type of reactive, too). You can also be reactive when it comes to your own strengths and weaknesses. My early adulthood experiences taught me that unquestioning obedience and sticking exclusively to your natural talents are not infallible routes to success. And they are certainly not infallible routes to fulfillment and happiness.
Many people are reckless and selfish as children. Part of their maturation process involves becoming more attuned to what is societally appropriate, controlling their temper, and considering the needs of others. Other people hit wall after wall because they’re trying to become [Insert Job Title Here] and they’re just not good enough at [Insert Skillset Here]. Part of their maturation process involves becoming more self-aware, nurturing their natural talents, and ceasing their attempts to put a square peg in a round hole.
For a long time, the predominance of these coming-of-age tales prevented me from seeing that my path to greater happiness would consist of the opposite. I never had any issues with authority or doing what I was told; I had issues doing anything beyond what I was told. I never had any issues with self-awareness; it was my safety blanket and my prison. And I only attempted to put a given peg in a given hole if I could see from a mile away that it would fit.
On my path to greater happiness, I had to learn to live for myself AND to challenge myself.
I had to learn to make my own decisions. I had to learn to take risks. I had to reevaluate my feelings on failure. I had to tone down my rigid “nurture your talents” mindset and mix in a bit of, “Zumba class will be fun and good for you, even if you’re the worst dancer in the room.”
And guess what? Graduating to second- or third-worst dancer in the room after a couple of classes is a pretty damn satisfying feeling.
4. I Got Into Health and Wellness
Speaking of cardio…
My whole life, I saw food and exercise as what did or didn’t keep me skinny. I thought women who said anything otherwise were Lying Liars Who Lied.
“It’s not about how you look in a bikini. I just feel so much better when I eat healthy!” the size zero Youtuber would gush from her perch behind a pristine white marble counter, a Vitamix full of green smoothie poised delicately in front of her.
“Yeah, your massive lip injections and lash extensions definitely clued me in on how little you care about your looks,” I’d think to myself, feeling guilty about whatever I was eating for dinner.
It’s taken many years filled with highs, lows, eating disorder struggles, and trying out every. single. diet. in existence… but I can tell you now that annoyingly perfect Youtuber is right (even if she does obviously care about how she looks in a bikini because what woman doesn’t).
I can feel it in my mood when I’ve consumed office donuts, pasta, and wine too many days in a row. And even though the first day back on the health wagon inevitably makes me a feel a little grouchy/deprived, I typically begin day 2 in a more cheerful and energetic mood.
I feel fortunate to say that I’m finally at a point in my life where healthy food and exercise feel more like friends than complicated frenemies. Sometimes when I get busy or stressed, I neglect these “friends” but at the end of the day, they are truly ride or dies. I always feel better when I reconnect with them.
But a spoonful of sharp cheddar helps the steamed broccoli go down 😉