You know those moments when you look back on certain things in your past and you can’t help but cringe? Sometimes, you may not even recognize the way you acted. Well, me too.
We've all been there. There’s no one on this planet who hasn’t felt at least a twinge of regret, embarrassment, guilt or shame (or any other of those "fun" emotions) about their past. But the irony is that the “regretful” things we say, do, don’t say, and don’t do allow us to know who we are, who we want to be, and learn what we really want in our lives.
When I look at my difficult experiences, both past and present, I see gifts, even if they’re not wrapped in particularly pretty wrapping paper.
With that, I want to share my list of the nine things I learned in my 60s that wish I had known in my 20s:
1. Holding a grudge won't make anything better.
I have held many grudges in my life. The usual scenario went something like this: someone (a friend, work colleague, a guy I was dating) had hurt or disappointed me and I was unable to express my feelings — of anger, sadness, rejection, etc. I would keep my "cool,” but the feelings stayed inside me and began to fester. The result? I’d feel awkward and avoid the "offender" either by not making eye contact, walking by them and pretending I didn't see them, or not returning their phone calls.
What I learned from one of my mentors was that it takes more energy to hold a grudge and hang on to the anger than it does to just release it.
When I realized that the other person’s presence in my life was always there because I had to be so conscious of avoiding them, I realized I had a choice. I could express my real feelings or let go of the grudge and forgive. In either case, I was being authentic and clear with myself.
2. Being vulnerable is a strength.
I used to be shy and wasn't very good at being friendly in social situations. Strangers would sometimes come up to me and say I had a "stay away from me" kind of look, which I knew stemmed from my own discomfort.
The bottom line? I feared rejection. I was afraid to open myself up — so much so that I saw friendliness as a weakness. If I thought someone was cool or interesting, I didn’t want to seem “too interested” and needy.
What I learned is that opening up to people is always an act of courage, no matter how big or small. I noticed and appreciated when people were warm and expressive, and I realized that I could be the same way. I worked on dismantling the belief that being emotionally available was the same thing as neediness. And from there, I started treating people the way I liked being treated.
3. Expressing anger won't make you lose friends.
Expressing my anger has always been very difficult for me. Whenever I used to get into an argument with someone, I’d get anxious — jittery stomach, dry mouth, the list goes on. But rather than realize I was angry, I’d immediately feel guilty. Was I being mean, petty, or spiteful simply because I wasn't just "letting it go"?
Now I know the answer to that question (No!). But I had always thought swallowing “ugly” feelings like anger was virtuous.
What I learned is how important it was and is for me to communicate clearly and with integrity. I don't yell, blame or accuse — I express how I am feeling. I do not talk about what the person did or said — I express how what they said or did made me feel.
This can lead to a discussion — an open line of communication and the ability for us to work on the friendship.
4. Outside validation never feels as good as trusting yourself.
Like most people at some point in their lives, I used to feel a strong need to seek approval from others in order to feel good about myself. But I was not selective and tended to ask too many people their opinions on what I was doing, saying, or wearing. I never felt able to move forward without a green light from family, friends, and colleagues.
I eventually learned to focus on my opinions and really get in touch with what I like, what I want to do, and how I feel. I give myself time and space to assess and reassess my decisions, and I accept that it can be difficult. And in the case that I want a second (or third) opinion, I make sure to ask someone whose opinions I really trust, instead of just randomly asking anyone.
5. Choosing self-involved friends isn't the way to go.
This scenario has been a common theme in my life. I used to choose friends who wanted or needed attention ALL THE TIME and were able to create the conditions for this in most situations. It used to be perfect for me, as my insecurity made me want to fade into the background. I thought it was easier and more comfortable for me. Until I realized that I didn't want to be that background player anymore.
What I learned is that I was not only allowing that to happen, but I was choosing friends who loved center stage. Once I became aware of this and wanted to change the dynamic, I started to have a bigger presence in my friendships. And if that were not possible, sometimes the friendship would end or diminish in importance to me.
6. Being easygoing is not the same thing as sublimating your needs.
I used to define myself as "easygoing Lisa." The more truthful way of saying this perhaps is that I was pretending to be easygoing. When I would get together with friends, I would usually defer to what they wanted to do or where they wanted to go.
I used to pretend not to care because I was afraid to voice my opinion. That is NOT the same thing as being easygoing. Instead, I was insecure and worried about whether or not friends would like the restaurant I chose or the movie I suggested.
Over the years, I learned that I am, in fact, easygoing in the truest sense of the word. I like to have open conversations with friends about our likes and dislikes, and to me, that’s what being easygoing is all about. But it took me a while to get there. Little by little, I would try giving my suggestions and found that friends were receptive to my ideas. And, if they sometimes weren't, that was okay. What this really came down to was accepting myself.
7. Trying something you think you’re bad at is insanely liberating.
Okay, this sounds like a cliché — but clichés exist for a reason.
I used to be afraid of writing. I would freak out if I had to write anything, even thank you notes. I was also incredibly anxious when it came to talking in front of groups, which I defined as anything more than two people. I thought I was inarticulate and incapable, and my anxiety would make me tense up even more.
What I learned is that I was keeping myself comfortable in my own doubt. This didn’t feel good, but it was a feeling I was used to, so that kept me safe.
When I realized that my fears were caused by my negative self-image and not the reality of the situation, I decided to take tiny steps — writing assignments for my coach training, talking on coaching calls. When I spoke authentically about what I was thinking and feeling, I saw that I began to loosen up without even trying.
8. Being alone isn't the same as being lonely.
I’m an only child. When I was growing up, I always felt lonely and yearned for a sibling. In my teenage years (and through adulthood), I got into the habit of always chatting idly on the phone with friends and making sure to keep myself busy with the “company” of other people.
What I learned through working on feelings like self-doubt in other areas of my life is that I really do like being “around” myself, and that being alone isn’t the same thing as being lonely. Now I look at “alone time” as a gift! I choose what I want to do — read, watch, eat, drink, whatever — and it feels great.
9. Negative feelings relate more to thoughts than reality.
This is a big one and probably sums up everything else I’ve written here so far. Whenever I used to feel bad — about a situation, a conversation, a relationship, a work project, and so on — I would assume that there was something inherently wrong with the reality at hand, and definitely that there was something wrong with me.
What I learned is that we can challenge these assumptions. We can change our thoughts and our relationship to them. And that wisdom is what’s helped me realize the power of acceptance. It’s not weak or sappy — it really works! If you feel bad and it has to do with a negative way of thinking about yourself, try to notice the impact your thought is having.
Once you notice your thoughts, you can question them and experiment with other ways of thinking. This may feel scary, but it’s what will help you dig into what’s keeping you stuck in a limited frame of mind.
If you change your thoughts, you can change your life. It’s just a fact, no matter what your age.