As a child, I thought a lot about the meaning of my life. I thought a lot about the meaning of my life especially after my mother would yell at me for hours on end – why would anyone put me on this earth so this woman could scream at me and make me want to kill myself? I remember typing on my laptop at some point, during sixth grade or earlier, with tears running down my face: I was put on this earth to make a difference, to stop people like her from hurting others. While other kids thought about prom and popularity and potential first romances, I felt dedicated to escaping my home and then devoting my life to helping others help themselves.
Except escaping my home marked just the start of my healing. I laugh at how oblivious this seems to me now, but at a younger age, I thought that if I just left home, I would leave all the abuse and self-harm and horrible memories behind me. But it turns out, post-traumatic stress disorder exists unlike a Jeni’s ice cream fountain in my apartment and a man who’s both into social justice and has his internal world together who I could date at some point. In college, my PTSD struck me like a frisbee to the head flying at 100 mph, complete with panic attacks, emotion dysregulation and a great difficulty trusting people.
But I also met some of the best people in my life so far at college. I met my amazing, snarky therapist L who laughed at my weird, debauched humor, sat with me through terrible flashbacks, and watched Ariana Grande music videos alongside me. I met several academic mentors who role modeled compassionate teaching, self-awareness, and prioritizing kindness over creating products or outcomes. I met some of my closest friends, who I still talk with all the time about friendship and shared family trauma and social justice and more.
I write this all because as I get older, I feel some pressure to achieve “adult” milestones. I feel external pressure that I should strive to apply for big grants and become a leading scholar in my research field. I get the sense that people strive to date, get engaged and then married, that romantic coupledom somehow equates to maturity or success. But in all honesty, I care so little about any of those things – the awards, the prestige, the boyfriend and/or husband – because I care about providing to others the care that my therapist, mentors, friends, and grandmother provided for me. (But also, if you’re a faculty search committee member reading this blog post three years from now when I’m on the academic job market, I’ll still strive for the awards so that I can successfully mentor my students, lol).
As I get older, I recognize more and more deeply that I care the most about nurturance, about nurturing connections. I care about becoming the most kickass, red-haired, social justice-oriented therapist possible. I care about nurturing the next generation of therapists and psychologists through feminist mentorship practices and compassionate research collaborations, teaching, and guidance. I care about taking all the love those in my life have given to me and paying it forward, including to my friends and future kid(s). This Caroline Knapp quote from Appetites helps me re-center my values and pay no heed to what others may value:
“The struggle is not about food, [my therapist would] say; it’s not about the boyfriend, it’s not about the problem-of-the-week or the fantasy-of-the-week, which are no more than red herrings and false hopes, and the solution is not going to reveal itself in external form, in a new man or a new job or a bottle of Chardonnay. The real struggle is about you: you, a person who has to learn to live in the real world, to inhabit her own skin, to know her own heart, to stop waiting for her life to begin.” – Caroline Knapp, Appetites.
I still have a lot of work to do on myself and a lot to figure out. But even though I am moving away from my undergrad years as a mentee and toward a more independent role as a mentor, I still have a great therapist, my iconic friends, and my own mentors who I can reach out to. As Ariana Grande once sang, I want to “get the hell away from those who block my vision,” and in my case, societal norms and pressures that distract me from my internal values and goals. By writing this post and sharing it online, I commit to stanning good pop music, developing my newfound crush on Simu Liu after just watching the first episode of Kim’s Convenience, and advocating for compassion and nurturance in all ways possible.
Feelings and reactions to this post? How do you discover and cultivate your internal values in a world that tries to tell us how we should think and feel? When will the world recognize that BlackPink’s “As If It’s Your Last” is truly the best K-Pop song of all time as dictated by my superior music taste
which my therapist L made fun of all the time. Let me know in the comments.