Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” The beginning of a new year is an appropriate time to look back over the lessons learned from the mistakes and experiences of previous months.
In 2018, I wrote two letters of resignation, grieved the ending of two significant relationships, and spent several weeks on a hospital waiting list for severe depression and weight loss. I fumbled, got lost, and confronted demons that I had been running from my entire life. The result is that I came away with a set of invaluable lessons that I take into the new year. Here are six of them.
1. Don’t measure your self-worth by your job performance or title.
Once was not enough for me to learn this important lesson. I had to make the same mistake twice to appreciate why you should never measure your self-worth by the status of your occupation.
In my first job, I lost myself in the pursuit of approval and acceptance of my co-workers. In placing too much of my self-identity into my work, constructive criticism felt more and more personal. I got turned around and forgot what I loved about the job.
Trying to make up for the insecurity I felt at the first job, I arrived at my second job as an overly ambitious employee, setting an unrealistic pace I couldn’t sustain. As soon as I woke up to my limitations as a human being without superpowers, my self-esteem crumbled.
Both experiences taught me that you absolutely must fill up your tank of self-love with things other than job performance and job title if you want a good shot at serenity.
2. Stress kills.
Not investing too much of your self-identity into your job was the first of two lessons I learned at my second job, where I worked as an editor for a health website. The second lesson was this: stress kills. In my time editing hundreds of articles on a variety of chronic health conditions, I noticed that the one common denominator among all of them was stress. Every piece I produced on flare ups — in dementia, psoriatic arthritis, or eczema — included stress as a powerful trigger. Stress not only complicates diseases, it can make any condition life-threatening.
Stress is what pushed my painful depressive ruminations of last year into intense suicidal thoughts that had me on the verge of hospitalization. Not until I made the necessary changes in my life at work and at home to reduce that stress did my ruminations become manageable.
3. Self-compassion is the path to healing.
Some of us learned a message early on that the way to an improved self is to beat ourselves to death. We bash ourselves for every mistake we make; we push ourselves beyond our threshold; and we fixate on a picture of a successful self that is unrealistic and unattainable. The result is that there is nothing to catch the broken pieces of ourselves when we fall apart.
I’ll never forget the doctor’s appointment last year when my physician told me that if I didn’t start to show myself some self-compassion I would end up in the hospital. Self-compassion was and is the most difficult and the most important lesson I will ever learn. Being okay with my imperfect self feels horribly awkward and uncomfortable. Relaxing into the truth that “I am enough” runs counter to the overachieving agenda that has pushed me for 48 years. However, my first steps toward this new mindset have already planted seeds of peace that I didn’t know was possible.
4. By identifying old tapes, you can rewrite your narrative.
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain,” remarked the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
I have sat on many therapy couches over the course of 30 years, but not until this year did I dig deep enough to uncover the source of the painful tapes that have played over and over again in my subconscious brain my entire life, driving much of my depression, anxiety, and dysfunctional behavior. In the safe sanctuary of psychotherapy, I was able to begin replacing the damaging and hurtful narrative that has become automatic with a message of loving kindness. It is never too late to try to identify the source of your damaging tapes and rework the narrative.
5. Marriage is an organic, evolving relationship.
“All living relationships are in the process of change, of expansion, and must perpetually be building themselves in new forms,” Ann Morrow Lindbergh explains in her classic Gift From the Sea. “There is no holding of a relationship to a single form.”
I used to be proud of the fact that my husband and I never fought. Friends and families put our marriage on a pedestal. This year I realized it had more to do with our fear of the kind of candid communication that is uncomfortable and at times hurtful. While we have always been loving toward each other, our relationship needed a dose of the brutal honesty that results in yelling and slammed doors. Such disruption is not a sign of demise. It’s an indication of growth. In marriage therapy, we pressed through the boundaries that had kept us safe, frozen in a single form, as Lindbergh describes. Now we are moving through the awkwardness of growth to a deeper intimacy.
6. Being yourself takes tremendous courage.
“To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight—and never stop fighting,” wrote E. E. Cummings. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s version is this: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Last year I ran up against the temptation over and over again to become an imitation or a version of myself that I thought was more acceptable or likable to the world. As I wrestled with whether or not I should return to writing and work as a mental health advocate, I experienced many colors and patterns of fear. I didn’t know if I was brave enough to be me. Ultimately I decided to pursue my passion. I enter into this year with a renewed conviction to be myself, as uncomfortable as that feels on some days.