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It seems like we know who we are as children and are unafraid to be fully ourselves—weird, unique, and fabulous.
Then something happens in our tween years, and we start to assimilate to society’s standards and all our individuality gets beat out of us as we conform and become who the world tells us we should be.
We play sports we don’t like and study hard to learn about things that don’t matter to us. We form fake friendships with people who are willing to stab us in the back with smiles on their faces. We start to look at others with contempt and envy over the most ridiculous things. We compare ourselves and feel like we are required to hate our flaws when we really should be embracing them.
In early adulthood, this continues as we rebel in different ways. It all follows the same pattern: lose yourself, find yourself in some type of group, and adapt to the ideals of that “culture.” Attending college has become more about experimentation than education, and when we leave it behind, we are supposed to be a functioning member of society—expected to have it all figured out by the time we are 22 or 23.
At that point, some of us start on the rest of the “checklist.”
We secure ourselves in a job that aligns with our chosen major—a decision forced upon us too early in life. We get married to a partner who matches up with how we view ourselves at the time and maybe buy a house. Then we get a dog and eventually have a couple of kids. Okay, all my boxes are checked, now what?
Go to work, come home, make dinner, and take care of the kids—living the same day in and out in a monotonous stream of repetition until we feel suffocated enough to make a change.
If we are brave enough to break free from the typical lifestyle everyone around us is shocked, spreading negativity about it. They’ll call it a mid-life crisis as they hold on to their security blanket and stay in their comfort zone—too afraid to be who they truly are.
But for some of us, the idea of working full-time in a soul-sucking office atmosphere is a fate worse than death. Having to repeat the same year over and over with nothing to look forward to apart from a once-a-year vacation or the day we get to retire—if we even live that long, is completely and utterly devastating.
Not everyone was meant to live like a robot, restricted without the ability to creatively express themselves in an innovative atmosphere.
That was the case for me, and the idea of having to wait until retirement to be able to do what I wanted to do was absolutely crushing. I took a leap of faith, quit my job, and started freelancing. At the time it felt like I was jumping out of a plane and trying to build a parachute on the way down. It’s scary and uncertain at times, but totally worth it!
For others, it’s their marriage that becomes a prison. People grow apart and change over the years and lose some of the things they have in common with the partner they vowed to spend their life with. The differences can become overwhelming, and they can’t seem to find their way back to the middle ground. Whoever decides to call it quits is often labeled the villain and must bear the shame of choosing themselves over the “rules” of society.
There are couples who stay together for the “sake of the children,” but once they are grown and gone—some of them end up parting ways anyway. I must wonder how those children will view love and marriage, growing up in a household that was an empty shell—an image of perfection on the outside but devoid of true happiness within.
The thing is, children are resilient and adapt to changes more easily than we give them credit for. My parents divorced when I was seven, and I knew they were both happier apart. I was happier; life was better. However, my mother and step-father separated when I was 30, and I can tell you that dissolution affected me much more.
Then there are people who feel stuck in unsatisfying careers or unhappy marriages but aren’t willing to do anything about it. They drink away their problems or take their misery out on others—constantly finding something or someone new to blame for their unhappiness.
I think many of us have encountered this type of person in the workplace or even in our group of friends. They are always angry about some imagined transgression and filled with hatred, trying to get others to go to battle with them. They may even take a few people down while they are on the warpath, but that won’t help them with the emptiness they feel inside.
The problem isn’t that we don’t know who we are, or that we don’t know what we want, it’s that we feel we have to be a certain way and conform to the mold that everyone else expects to fit into. I’m not saying that some people aren’t happy living the stereotypical version of life. Some really enjoy their routine and their safe and secure little place in the world, but that’s not for everyone. Others feel trapped in that lifestyle, desperate for an escape.
Ultimately, following the checklist of college, career, marriage, house, children, etcetera is not always the key to living a full and meaningful life. We need to normalize doing things out of order or not doing some things at all. Recognizing that we aren’t all the same and celebrating the beauty of those differences. The world would be extremely boring if we were all carbon copies of each other.
We need to give everyone space and freedom to live their lives the way that works for them and stop being judgmental—even if it’s the opposite of how we want to live ours.
It’s completely fine if our neighbors decide not to have children. It’s acceptable if our friend decides to completely change her career at 35. It’s okay for people to attend college in their 40s because they finally know what they want to do. It’s alright if our brother never wants to get married or if our sister waits until she is 50—if that’s what they want. It is totally cool if our cousins never buy a house and decide to live out of an RV, traveling from place to place.
At the end of the day, we are each living our own life and we need to do that in a way that makes us happy—whatever that vision is in our own hearts. We need to love each other for who we are instead of who we think we should be.