I had a birthday recently, and I was thinking lately about things I’ve learned at different stages of life. It’s funny, getting older – things that seemed important or urgent when you were younger no longer matter. Things you used to fall for you now see through.
I thought about the big lessons I learned at different points of adulthood, and it came down to five major things. All of these things built on one another.
1. There is a huge difference between “tough love” and emotional abuse. (Early 20s)
Tough love is having to tell a friend that their personal hygiene is questionable and people are starting to talk. It’s having to tell someone that they’re doing things that are self-destructive. It’s setting boundaries and maintaining healthy boundaries and not shying away from difficult conversations. It’s sometimes letting people fail or sitting back and realizing that no matter what you say, they’re going to do what they’re going to do, and they need to be allowed to make their own decisions and learn their own lessons.
Tough love is not harassing someone repeatedly, calling people names, highlighting people’s flaws and mistakes, demanding perfection, focusing on the negative while overlooking the positive, continuing to bring up a topic that someone has asked you to drop, ghosting/ignoring people, or pointing out everything that could possibly go wrong.
2. Having kids is a choice, not an obligation. (Late 20s)
No one told me this growing up. As an adult, I fumbled around for a while about whether this was something I wanted, and having someone say to me, “This is not something you’re obligated to do” literally changed my life. It seems silly now to realize that I didn’t understand it was a choice, but I legitimately did not grasp that. And I’ve talked to other people who felt the same way – they just swallowed the traditional life script without ever questioning it.
An important subtheme here is: My choice is not a comment on your choice. Parents sometimes get very defensive around childfree people, and it’s almost like they take my choice personally.
My Toyota is not a commentary on your Ford. My house is not a commentary on your condo. My decision to be an analyst is not a commentary on your decision to be a teacher. My lack of kids is not a commentary on your kids.
You do your life, I’ll do mine.
3. You’re not responsible for managing other people’s feelings and reactions. (Early 30s)
Don’t restrict yourself because you’re concerned about how someone else will feel, or allow someone to emotionally blackmail you. Don’t do something you don’t want to do or refrain from doing something you do want to do because someone else might be upset about it. If someone is upset by a choice you make, let them be upset. It’s up to them to process and come to terms with your choice.
That said, this isn’t a license to treat people like shit and wash your hands of the consequences. I’m not saying go cheat on your spouse then tell them that it’s up to them to manage their feelings about it. Obviously if you’re violating an agreement or promise or reasonable expectation or being rude/hostile, that’s a problem.
This is simply a reminder that you can’t and shouldn’t try to manage someone else’s emotional life. Don’t fall into the trap of constantly feeling like you need to reassure others, be their therapist, or put aside your feelings, needs and goals to make them happy.
4. Before you start solving a problem, first ask yourself if it’s really a problem. (Late 30s)
This was said to me by a writing instructor about a passage in my work that I was questioning, but the words glued themselves to my brain because there’s a profound truth here. Before problem solving, first ask – Is this actually a problem? If so, how big is the problem? Whose problem is it? Is it a me problem or is it someone else’s problem that they’re trying to make my problem? Would it be the end of the world if I *didn’t* jump in and try to fix this? Would it be the end of the world to be okay with something not being perfect or not meeting expectations?
This stuck with me because I see people either trying to solve problems that may not be problems, or blowing the magnitude of a problem hugely out of proportion. I’ve actually had relationships end because of the latter.
Now I ask myself – is this *actually* a problem for me, or am I reacting to it because I *think* it should be a problem, or because others think it’s a problem and I’m just going alone with it?
5. If someone insists on not understanding you, let them. (Early 40s)
This came out of the last revelation. I knew this for a while, but enacted it only sporadically – when someone assumes things about you that just aren’t true, your knee jerk reaction is likely going to be to go on the defense and try to prove them wrong. I found that I got rid of a lot of stress and cultivated much more peace when I stopped doing this.
It’s hard to walk away from a situation in which you just want to be seen and heard and have a chance to prove yourself. It’s hard to not defend yourself when someone projects their faults and issues onto you and puts you in a position where you’re constantly fighting to be seen, or feeling like you need to apologize for things you never did.
I now walk away from anyone who hints or accuses me of things in a manner that makes it obvious that they’ve already made up their mind, or if they try to manipulate the relationship dynamics to push me into a certain role. If I sense I exist to be your consolation prize, or your punching bag, or the person you use when you need something, I’m out.
It feels good to drop the weight of people who, for whatever reason – selfishness, immaturity, narcissism – are never going to see you for who you really are. You deserve better.