The older I get, the better I get at trusting my instincts. I’ve also gotten better at saying no. To say that the building of these skills has been lifechanging is the understatement of the century. Its been so impactful that, while my daughter is only a few short weeks from birth, I’ve read twice as many books on instilling confidence and autonomy in children as I have about the actual logistics of taking care of a baby. (I know I need to familiarize myself with common ailments and care as well. I can’t help but obsess over my ability to guide her in the direction of fully-functioning human first, though.)
I was a people pleaser well into adulthood. The first time I remember consciously turning inward and asking myself why I was always stuck doing something I’m miserable doing and daydreaming I was on another path in life was when I was 25-years-old. (I can put an age on it because I remember it was right after I moved back to the United States from Okinawa, Japan. I was desperately trying to decide what I wanted to do when I separated from the military because there was “no way in hell” I was staying in.)
I’m going to take you back a little further.
There were three things I knew that I wanted when I was graduating from high school: freedom, financial independence, and the ability to travel. I didn’t want to go to college. I wasn’t ready yet (and now, at 29-years-old, I understand there was nothing wrong with that). I contemplated getting a job locally and working until I saved enough money to travel. I figured that after traveling, I could come back and start school. I’m very fortunate in that I’ve always had a place to land – if I needed to go home, my dad wouldn’t turn me away or make me feel like I’d failed somehow. (This was another safety net I felt like I needed for a long time. I used to have a habit of burying myself in guilt every time something didn’t work out, and other well-meaning people in my life gave me an underlying sense of, “we knew she couldn’t do it” or “we knew this would happen.”)
That isn’t what happened, though. Around September of 2008, with graduation looming and a deep sense that if I didn’t go to college other people were going to think of me as a failure, I applied to one school: Western Carolina University.
I applied there because my brother and my sister-in-law went there and they had a music program (which, by the way, I didn’t apply for because I was terrified of failure.) Instead, I auditioned for their acting program, because an acting coach in high school told me I had a “natural gift” for it.
I got accepted – I had good grades in high school, a handful of awards to brag about, and frankly, Western Carolina wasn’t a difficult school to get admitted to (at least as of 2008/2009.) I lasted one semester. I didn’t take a single acting class (just general education). I auditioned for their vocal performance program around December, was accepted to begin in the spring, took less than three weeks of classes, and dropped all but two more general education classes. And then I dropped out.
There were a lot of things going through my head when I got accepted into that music program and dropped out.
- “I always said I was going to be a singer if that’s not the path I take, I failed, and everyone will know it.“
- Someone told me once that I never stick with anything, which I didn’t understand because, yeah, my interests shifted a lot, but at that point, I’d been writing for ten years already and busting my ass to sing and perform well for five years.
- I started to understand that performing for me was a form of validation and feeling loved, because I was higher than a kite when I performed well. If I didn’t perform well, though, I wouldn’t want to get out of bed for days. I realized that if I wanted to be a performer, I had to have a more robust backbone then that. I had to have a purpose beyond trying to get people to love and accept me.
- “I have an underlying sense that this isn’t what I’m meant to do.”
- I wanted to start over and try again.
- I thought that the version of myself that was a singer and an artist and sensitive would never have a place with my family – that I wouldn’t be accepted if I didn’t mold myself to be less of a black sheep and to fit in more.
And that last bullet, my friends, is what ultimately lead me to drop out of college my freshman year. I wasn’t honest with myself about what I wanted. Instead, I focused on what my family would think of me if I decided to do what I wanted.
The years that followed were full of similar patterns: I applied to UNCG, was accepted, and never went. I worked for one summer, got an apartment, got scared because I was having trouble finding another job, then decided on a whim to move to Nashville to go to school to be a mechanic. (I don’t even want to think about the financial fallout of this. My dad should’ve slapped me instead of paying rent on an apartment I wasn’t living in until we could find someone else to lease it to.) Not to mention, I based that decision on the fact the aforementioned summer job was at a local marina, and the men thought it was cute that I’d want to learn to work on things. (My boss laughed in my face and warned me I might break a nail, the cretin.)
The result of this Nashville excursion? I wasn’t fulfilled by what I was doing. I ended up in a one-sided relationship with a guy I should’ve walked away from in the first week. I briefly worked a security job after graduation because I didn’t want to work on cars for a living (I just wanted to be a cool chick who could work on her car and maybe be a hobbyist, but that’s just not my thing). Then said boyfriend and I broke up, and I came home broke and heartbroken with no intention of getting a job at any type of mechanic shop.
My sister-in-law tried to get me a job that I walked away from ASAP…like in the first week. I quit and had a meltdown on New Year’s Eve, 2011, just three weeks after I’d gotten home from Nashville. My brother and sister-in-law helped me get a cute little apartment near their home, and I got a job at Subway that barely paid the bills. (I could scrape by if I used dollar candles and kept the AC turned off.)
This is not the life I imagined myself living as a young twenty-something. (I didn’t mind being broke, but I did mind feeling trapped. My wanderlust was killing me, and to deal, I started making excellent friends with Jack Daniels, wine, and Marlboro Reds.)
So at this point, I’m sitting around thinking about all the things I want to do.
- Be a writer.
- Maybe go to college and major in Creative Writing or English.
- Work in a coffee shop.
- Live on the road.
I wanted to go to college because that was the only way I believed I could make any money at that point. Still, while I love to learn, I’m not much for the academic lifestyle, and anyway, whenever I thought about applying for what I wanted to go to school for, I felt so guilty I couldn’t follow through. All I could hear were echoes of, “you should go for ____________.” Fill in the blank. I was so worried that people didn’t agree with the life I wanted to build for myself. (Most commonly, I would hear my brother telling me to get a business degree every time I told him I wanted to do something else. I felt guilty about doing anything else. After all, I aimed to please.)
Still, when I imagined going to college, I imagined being stuck in a nine to five, never seeing the world, and falling into the trap of letting individuals with very limited imaginations tell me on what terms I should be living my life. (There are still people in my life who try to do this. The only thing that’s changed? I finally realized their opinions honest to goodness do. Not. Matter.)
Instead, in the summer of 2012, I joined the Marine Corps.
When I came home with a packet from the Marine Corps recruiter and told my family I was joining, they gave me a look that was somewhere between extreme levels of doubt and like I was a corpse back from the grave.
That sealed the deal. I thought I had to prove myself to everyone. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could do hard things. So I picked the hardest thing I could find.
I won’t bore you with stories of my five years in the Corps. I still can’t decide whether they were the best or worst years of my life. Maybe a little of both. The only thing I know for sure is that they changed me. They transformed me into a version of myself I didn’t know before I joined the Marine Corps, for better and sometimes for worse.
At the end of my five-year stint, I decided that something had to change. I told myself I’m done living for other people. From now on, my decisions would be my own, and I didn’t care what anyone else thought. After all, trying so hard to make other people happy/believe in me hadn’t yielded me a damn thing but absolute misery.
Except I didn’t mean it yet. Not really.
I also still had some personal problems to work through that inevitably brought on the wave of judgment and doubt from others. Number one being my lack of discipline with money.
The beautiful thing about the military? Guaranteed paychecks, twice a month.
The not so beautiful thing about getting out? If you haven’t practiced some fiscal responsibility, not getting those paychecks is a real kick in the ass.
I applied to UNCW. I got accepted. I renewed my lease in a (very shitty) apartment in Jacksonville. I was going to UNCW to major in business (I felt a little lackluster about it still, but I was going to school.) I got a job at Starbucks on campus. I was a little broke, but the GI bill gives allowances to veterans that help pay for housing and books (and by housing, I meant rent, so I didn’t have to live on campus.) I waited too long to apply, though, and I didn’t have any savings. So my dad picked up my rent (seriously, dad, if you’re reading this, the amount that I owe you is unfathomable at this point.) Dad’s money lending was only supposed to last until the spring when I would start school. My dad was supportive. Every time I worried over the phone to him and assured him I was going to get my shit together, he would tell me, “just let me know what you need. Stay employed. We’ll get you through until school starts, and your GI bill kicks in.”
But then I’d get on the phone with people who weren’t my dad, and their doubts about my follow-through (and general decision making) crept into the conversation. Before my last official day in the Marine Corps was over (about a week before), I talked to an Air Force recruiter. And my family gave me that ever spirit-lifting pat on the head that I’d done the right thing, they were genuinely excited for me, and told me I made the right decision.
At this point, I know people just worry about me, but while I skillfully pretended to be excited, deep down, I kept thinking to myself, “you’re taking the easy way out. You’re trying to convince yourself this is going to make you happy but is it?”
And so my life continued with three years in the Air Force instead.
Guess how that panned out?
I hated it. I was proud of my time in the Marine Corps. The Air Force didn’t offer the same gratification. (Frankly, it’s an over-glorified government contracting agency.) Not to mention, I experienced a demotion in rank, status, and respect in an organization that treats those things very, very differently than the Marine Corps does. I was not mentally or emotionally prepared for this. I was still doing a job I hated (the Air Force messed up my contract and then said fuck it, we’re going to leave her there. Literally. Not exaggerating. It was a financial decision, according to administration.) It also takes a while to acclimate, going from the Marines to the Airforce (although in fairness, this is something my Marine Corps superiors talked to me about to prepare me. “Don’t go in there kicking down doors,” they said. “The Air Force doesn’t like that.”)
The Air Force can be an excellent choice for a great number of individuals for a lot of reasons. It just wasn’t the right choice for me. Eight months in, I turned inward again. This time, I had a different question for myself.
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life miserable, living your life for other people, or do you want to live the life you always wanted?”
I changed my mindset. I applied to Arizona State online and changed my major a couple of times. (I’ve just requested to change it again, this time to a degree in digital marketing/audiences.) I started with a business degree, but finally found some intestinal fortitude and changed it. I decided that if I were going to put all this time and effort into my education, I would be learning about something that I was excited to learn. Job opportunities be damned; I was separating at the end of three years. I bought my web domain and spent money on a class that would teach me how to make money blogging and freelance writing.
Those choices were the first step.
The next step was a lot of work, internally, because I had to get used to speaking my truth. I had to start learning to set firm boundaries and, more importantly, to hold the line when people tried to cross them, even if it caused conflict. When I had an instinct to run with something, I ran with it. If my instincts told me nope, get out of dodge, I jumped ship without even thinking about it (or worrying someone would call me a quitter.)
It was exhausting. Sometimes it was emotional. It was very uncomfortable. And I’m not perfect at it yet.
But when I shifted my focus, when I started trusting my instincts and saying “no” to things that weren’t important to me, saying “yes” to things that are important to me became, all of a sudden, much more manageable.
This is what my last year has yielded:
- The actual love of my life.
- A daughter (a sort of unexpected but welcome surprise).
- Separating from the military, and when people ask why, I tell them, “because I hate it,” not some other bumbling lie to (hopefully) make them accept my decision.
- Progress on a degree I’m actually excited to pursue.
- The beginnings of a lucrative online business that includes this blog.
- Paying off 3/4 of my credit cards and cutting my other debt in half.
- Traveling! And not just to my home state, or because of deployments.
- Buying my first home with my now-husband (that’s right! We’re married now!)
- A genuine sense that I’m doing the right things right now.
That’s a lot of rewards. That’s a lot of rewards, and it’s only been a year since I finally started taking my advice.
I have found that there is so much power in speaking my truth, in saying no, and in trusting my instincts. There is so much power in holding my boundaries and giving pushback when pushback is due. It’s freeing.
Because, friends, at the end of your life, it’s just you and the mirror.
At the end of my life, I want to know I lived a full and happy life that I created for myself, not a life that someone else envisioned for me.
And the three things that I wanted most more than ten years ago now, freedom, financial independence, and to travel? That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that now, they’re in the palm of my hand. I can feed my wanderlust, do a job I love, and I’ve even started my own little family (and that little family is taking the leap right along with me.) The life that I’m living is a life that I love and a life that feels like my own.
The only terms I’m living on are my own, and anyone who can’t accept that can find a different ship to sail on.
After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained,
Am I right?