When I was younger, people told me I have a nervous stomach. What that really means is basically any social interaction — especially with someone I didn’t know — made me want to have a full-blown panic attack. Since I was deeply uncool, I managed to avoid talking to many people all through high school. Yes, I had some friends, but mostly it was those who also relied on benzodiazepine and shared a deep love of music, which often spoke for us. It wasn’t until college that I understood if I wanted to be successful I was going to have to be social — a deeply disconcerting realization for an introverted nervous wreck.
As any good nerd would, I hit the books. I worked on solving my problem by compiling research. I read books on body language, neuro-linguistic programming, how to create self esteem, relationship advice, marketing, personal branding, biological anthropology and so many more tools I would later analyze and put into action. It was hard work, at times it was terrifying, and it’s still something I’m cognizant of and working on. I feel that culturally right now me and many other people are bombarded with this idea that we are supposed to be 100% happy and content with exactly who you are without putting in effort. I find this thinking to be lazy and unsatisfying. Once I realized that I controlled everything I did and even to some extent my environment it allowed me to conduct an honest appraisal of my strengths and weaknesses. I decided I wasn’t content with who I was and I implemented changes that made me happier, and enhanced every aspect of my life. These are a few of the things I’m glad I stopped making excuses for and resolved to become the person I really wanted to be.
1. I became comfortable being uncomfortable.
When I was in school for music, I told a professor I felt uncomfortable meeting people who wanted to talk about my art or who liked my music. This was back before I had made any of these changes and still had a cavernous, irrational and yet crippling fear of talking to other people. When someone told me they liked my work I’d make weak eye contact, say thank you, and then excuse myself. I was afraid that I was coming off as rude instead of mysterious or artistic or — more truthfully — anxiety ridden. I truly was thankful that they enjoyed my work and I could have been more tactful via e-mail or through social media but face-to-face interactions made me want to vomit.
I actually started scripting conversations to have with people and memorized topics to discuss. I became comfortable talking about a few things. This was essential to beginning to cultivate conversational skills, which are hard to get if you can’t force words out of your mouth. I started setting goals for myself — to talk to someone every day, then five people every day, then work on maintaining eye contact while speaking. I noted changes I needed to make, such as avoiding speaking quickly as if I was afraid I’d go mute if I didn’t get my thoughts out immediately. I still often have the desire to run in the opposite direction instead of starting or participating in a conversation, but I have developed the ability to keep my feet firmly planted despite my instinct. After a lot of practice, it became easier and easier to initiate conversations. Then it became easier to lead them. Next I found myself not only present, but a commanding presence.
My anxiety wasn’t eliminated; I simply decided I wanted to keep it in check more than I wanted to flee. It was also important to come to the realization that my fears were unfounded. Even if a conversation failed in an epic manner, nothing terrible happened to me — save for a few moments of embarrassment, which I was now more equipped to handle. I learned to shake off those feelings and in time something that was once painfully difficult for me became something I handled with increasing grace and ease. It wasn’t necessarily about eliminating my fear; the point was to act in spite of it. I’m glad I did and continue to do so. I live outside my comfort zone and I am better for it.
2. I realized I should put effort into how I look.
I once resigned myself to the thinking that comfortable clothes were fine all the time and that I should be able to wear whatever I want and not be judged based on looks, fashion, or the latest trends. I suppose that may sound nice to some people, but I realized that people do judge you based on your looks. Your appearance matters whether you like it or not. Instead of complaining about it, I decided to use it. I had 100% control how I looked when I walked out the door, and I critiqued myself without coddling. I started working out more, I invested in hair, skin, and nail products, I trashed my ratty clothes and picked up a few good outfits, I did my hair before I left every day. I started paying attention to the details and I was rewarded for it. I got positive attention because of it, from men and women.
This may be where someone might argue to me that society puts too much emphasis on looks, that we should all look deep into people’s hearts before passing judgment, and tell me I am wasting my time putting effort into something so trivial. I accept that’s how some people feel, but personally I reject those ideas. I don’t think that you should just accept the way you look without effort, because that eliminates the possibility of growth. I disagree with the mindset that walking out the door looking like you put no effort into how you look shows some sort of freedom, or that you’re laid-back, or that you don’t care what other people think about you. Whatever the reasoning, I don’t understand the pride in neglecting to brush your hair before you leave the house.
Lack of hygiene is not how I wish to convey that I’m a laid-back person. It’s not because I’m shallow. I don’t dress well and take care of myself specifically for other people. It makes me feel more confident, so why shouldn’t I embrace what makes me feel good about myself? I don’t find it demeaning to be complimented on an outfit or to be recognized for my looks instead of my brains. Yes, it takes more effort to live the way I do now but it is worth the requisite labor. Life gets easier when you’re happy with the person you see in the mirror, and it is not superficial to express yourself through how you look.
3. That I had to learn to lower my bitch shield.
A “bitch shield” is one of those walls you throw up to keep people away from you — my wall included a moat in front (crocodiles included), some snipers, and even some elves from middle earth. I was heavily guarded and I was weary of almost anyone I met. I was fine with surface conversation, but I didn’t discuss anything more personal. It was justified, given some things I’d encountered, but it wasn’t benefiting me. Keeping those walls up kept me from getting hurt, but they also kept me from getting close to anyone. I’m still not the most inherently trustful of people, but I’ve improved and realized that having people in your life who mean a lot to you can be well worth the pain they are capable of causing.
4. That I had to stop taking things personally.
People tend to overestimate how much time other people think about them — it’s called the spotlight effect. When we do something embarrassing we may think that everyone around us noticed and will not only laugh about it that day, but also remember it forever. That’s not the case. We may be the center of our own universe, but we’re not as important to other people as we may believe. It became easier for me to stop thinking that everyone was going to notice my blunders once I realized that sort of thinking had a name. Once I realized I was putting pressure on myself and thinking negatively without reason, I could change my behavior and how I thought.
When people were distant with me I assumed I had done something wrong. If someone rejected my plans, it wasn’t because they were busy — it was because they didn’t want to see me. I don’t know how I came into that sort of thinking, but it’s something I had to deal with. I had to remember that rejection isn’t always personal. I had to learn that just because someone is being awful to you doesn’t mean that you’ve necessarily done something to deserve it. I had to shift my perspective and realize it wasn’t always about me.
This wasn’t just beneficial personally, but also professionally. I have been an artist for a long time, but once in a while, I’ll still get a comment that digs under my skin. It’s perfectly human of me, but I despise it because I know in the end it doesn’t matter. People hating my work means people saw my work. If no one were rejecting me, I’d think I’m not dreaming big enough. It gives me the opportunity to begin anew with more knowledge this time. It was a good day when I said, “Screw it. Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It’s when I stopped being so concerned with what everyone else was doing and what they thought about what I was doing. Learning to ignore non-constructive criticism is still something I struggle with. It’s helpful to remember I’ve never met a hater doing better than me.
5. I began putting effort into helping others.
The cliché is true, it feels good to help people. Just doing the simple things, like putting aside some time to type up a study guide to help my fellow students gave me a warm, fuzzy, feel-good moment. It was so very much worth sacrificing my time and energy to help my classmates out. Their successes seemed like my successes too. I made an effort every day to make someone’s life a little bit easier. I kept a notebook for a long time, writing down spontaneous things I could do to make someone’s day, and I made sure to check something off daily. From offering to pay for a coffee to taking charge of planning a surprise party, I found my relationships became stronger and better. I liked becoming someone people felt comfortable to come to for help. If I heard someone mention a need in a conversation that I felt I could fill with relative ease I offered my services. I gave my time to charities I believed in. Yes, I spent a lot of effort on other people for no reason — but that should be the standard instead of the exception. Investing in my relationships has reaped endless rewards, and I enjoy nothing more than making someone I care about happy.
6. I quit enforcing limits upon myself.
I realized that I must take responsibility for my destiny every instant. I seized fate by the throat and listed my demands. I stopped saying I wanted to do things, and I went out and started doing them. I learned to completely ignore the fear of failure. I have failed at everything that I have become an authority on. I have failed the most at the skills I have mastered — because I practiced until I couldn’t get it wrong. I worked until the laborious became effortless, and once I had the basic ability I became proficient. This requires being relentless and possessing an incredible amount of drive. When people ask me how I became a long distance runner, I would reply “I just run until I can’t think anymore,” because when I reach the point where I’ve gone so far all I can do is focus on moving forward, it reminds me that everything in life is a long distance race. It’s only the people willing to work past the feelings of exhaustion, weakness, and pain that go a little bit further than they did yesterday. Those people reach their goals, and are rewarded with success.
There was a long period in my life in which I did not think I could control how I looked, how I interacted with people, how crippling my anxiety was. These were all false beliefs that limited what I could accomplish. I made excuses as to why I couldn’t control those things, and why I couldn’t change them. Of course that’s all they were — excuses, not truths. Often when we can’t achieve something it’s not because of outside reasons, it’s because we haven’t done what is required to achieve that goal. We tell ourselves that we’re not smart enough, not good looking enough, don’t have enough money, can’t make time for it. You can choose to dwell on these things, if you wish. There are always a thousand reasons not to do something, but if you want to reach a goal or know what something is like — that’s the only reason you need to start. The only thing standing between you and your dreams are whatever excuses you’re using not to go for it.
I also had to stop letting other people put restrictions on me, or to buy into what people said or thought about me. I had to develop a thicker skin and let things roll off me. This was essential to dealing with success later. If you are succeeding people are going to work against you. People are going to talk poorly to and about you, people are going to try to get in the way of your success, and some people will hate you simply because of your success. It’s not always easy to deal with that. Like in a video game, I’ve found if people like that are becoming harder to deal with it’s because I’m getting closer to rescuing Princess Zelda. And while failure is possible, you learn from each quest that the most heavily guarded castles walls are not as impenetrable as they seem, and even a lost battle yields knowledge on how to succeed. I learned you must learn how to get past these kinds of people in order to save the princess and stop Ganon from taking control of Hyrule. By which I mean you have to stop letting insignificant people have control over how you feel and how you act, instead keep moving forward with the knowledge you get to choose your destiny and pick how your storybook ends.
7. I stopped getting angry about things out of my control.
Of the seven deadly sins, I am wrath. I was a sincerely pissed-off teenager. I was so frustrated with being stuck in circumstances beyond my control, without the tools or ability to change them. But the truth is that those situations were out of my control, they weren’t ideal, and I didn’t know how to respond to them. I carried that weight in my chest and I wanted nothing more than to be able to tear it out of my body with my tiny hands. Song writing proved to be an important outlet, but I didn’t want to be angry all the time. It’s draining and not worth the energy. I was so pissed off, it was hard to breathe. Accepting the things I could not change was easier when I realized I did have control over my actions and how I proceeded. You get to decide how you respond to everything, so I decided to stop letting things out of my control dictate how I felt or how I acted. I made a conscious effort to focus on how I would improve situations, what I could do to make it easier, and how I could respond with grace to stressful situations. I have since developed a keen ability to handle difficult situations with a calm composure and tact, which has served me well.
8. I started loving recklessly.
I was not raised in a family that was particularly articulate regarding feelings. At first it felt odd to tell people that I cared about them; it made me feel vulnerable, which I didn’t care for at all. After losing people I cared for deeply, I started telling my friends that I loved them and that they were magic, and so wonderful I couldn’t believe they really exist. Life is too short not to cherish the people you love. I stopped letting the fear of getting hurt, of losing love, or being treated poorly stop me from expressing how I felt. Now I love telling the people closest to me that they are amazing and fantastic and that they make my life easier and the cruel world more bearable. I tell them how other worldly they are because I don’t understand how a person can be so incredible. Because you never know when the thing that is going to take you out of rotation is going to hit, so I’m not going to spend my time not holding the hands of the people I love and denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things ever. Because all you need is love — which is slightly terrifying but true. Being vulnerable in this way is one of the toughest and scariest things you can do, but it can also be one of the most rewarding, freeing, most unselfish things you can do for yourself.
9. I gave myself permission to be weird.
To this day, if you call and ask my brother if I’m a freak, I’m sure he’d say yes. That used to bother me, but now when someone tells me I’m weird, I thank him or her and curtsy. Being weird has led to extraordinary things for me. All the things that made me weird in high school made me successful later. I was a freak for being a nerd — for being completely in love with things that made me happy. But loving those things and investing time in them made me adept, and gave me the ability to master things at a young age. Even now at 21, which seems so old to me, I find people are constantly in disbelief that I have accomplished the things I have at my age.
Most people don’t get to know what it’s like to love something so much you’re willing to give up everything for it. Growing up I believed the people who told me I had a nervous stomach, but later I realized some of that was ambition. The need to share my gifts came from wanting to share the things I love. Choosing to pursue the things that set my soul on fire enabled me to do things I absolutely loved as my job. Had I not gotten over being made fun of for being entirely enamored with whatever made me totally happy I never would have gotten to actually live my dreams. Now I live a life where the lines between dreams and reality are not just completely blurred, they’re no longer there. My reality now is the dream, and it can be that way for you too.
10. I refused to give up.
There are endless amazing opportunities waiting for those who refuse to give up. I have achieved far beyond my wildest dreams because I refused to accept anything else. Instead of looking at posters on my wall day dreaming about living the live I wanted, I went out and made it happen. What I lacked in natural ability I made up for in discipline. When I took responsibility for my actions, it gave them value. When I believed in myself, others followed. People started investing in my abilities, doors opened, and dreams became reality. I found that Newton got it right — action brought reaction. Amazing things happened when I refused to quit. I created opportunities instead of waiting for them. I may not have had as many years as those around me, but I made up for it in guts. There were so many days when it seemed time to quit, but I always gave it one more day, one more week, one more month. Whatever it took to get to the next success that would keep me going. I was rewarded for my perseverance and the effort I put in. I dared to lust after the impossible and pursued it with all my strength.
I went through some very scary things that I thought for sure would be the end of me. Instead they made me fight harder for what I wanted. It turns out the possibilities in this life are far beyond what I initially dreamed. I have found myself in circumstances I wouldn’t have dared to dream because they seemed so outlandish. I took responsibility for all my actions and started to believe in my abilities. I found paths cleared, obstacles removed, and hardships resolved.
Quitting would have been easier, but I’m no quitter. I understand that I am young — I don’t have all the answers. I know that I am flawed — I don’t pretend otherwise. I found that success doesn’t come without a cost but is one I am willing to pay. The most arduous difficulties I face show me what I was capable of, and I’ve found time and time again that I was stronger than I thought. I’ve discovered that I was more capable than I imagined, and that I can continue on long after I originally believed I could. It turns out that whatever you strive for is possible, provided you’re willing to do the heavy lifting and refuse to back down.