Dear 36 year old me,
As you may remember from last year (and/or 20 years ago if it arrived), I wrote a letter to our 16 year old incarnation with some advice that could be/would have been useful to us back then.
Writing that letter, and reading those written by others (most notably Andrew), I realised that lessons could be learned from the advice offered – lessons that are still applicable today. That’s why I’m writing to you, my future self, just in time for my/our 36th birthday next week.
Last year, I wrote about some realisations I was having about myself as I approached my 35th birthday but you didn’t act on the hints so here is a list of new rules to follow, you dumb monkey. I apologise in advance if this inevitably becomes a list of bland aphorisms but you only have yourself to blame: you’re the one that cultivated such commonplace issues (see #2).
1. Stop losing people through fear or indifference
In every letter I read, including my own, there was a particularly pervasive theme: it’s only afterwards, when it’s too late, that we realise what – who – we’ve lost or missed out on.
You, 36 year old version of me, lose people all over the place.
1a. Making new friends
You fail to make/solidify new friendships because you don’t want to take the leap in asking for contact details or whatever. I can give you the names of three .. four … fi— many, just many people you’ve met over the last year with whom you thought you could strike up a friendship but which you’ve been too scared to cultivate: does that sound like the behaviour of a grown-up? Oh, you think ‘scared’ is too strong of a word because you know they won’t bite? Suck it up lady, you are scared – you’re scared of rejection, no matter how slight. It’s a bloody good job you’re not single.
And you’re hardly any better online than you are in person. You know as well as I do that there are people you don’t follow on Twitter because you’re worried that it’ll be too forward, too pushy. Really? REALLY? You’re an idiot, 36 year old Louisa.
Ok, I admit that you have been rejected – or not even that, just not been embraced with open arms (metaphorically, you do NOT want that literally of course) – a couple of times when you have tried to put yourself out there and that stung but I think you let it scar you too deeply. You need to start thinking more like Boomhauer – just don’t start talking like him.
1b. Current friends
You’re no better with established friendships. You suck at initiating interactions both in person and online, and when you chat or meet up with people, you constantly worried you’re making an ass of yourself. Your friends know you’re an ass and they, by and large, accepted you despite of it so stop letting it haunt you to the point where you won’t be able to bring yourself to see them again.
And while you might chat online (usually when they initiate it), don’t you think it’s weird that you don’t have the phone numbers of half of your closest friends? You spent so long being worried about that new-friend-rejection bullshit that it got to the point where it was weird to ask for those sort of details. I don’t think you should be afraid of your friends, Louisa. Jeez, do I really need to tell you that?
1c. Back-then friends
And of course, because of your various social inadequacies, these people can easily slip from being ‘friends’ to being ‘used-to-be-friends-with’ or ‘friend-I-knew-when”. These people scare you most of all: your ineptitude probably caused you to unconsciously “reject” them back them, but you still see it as them rejecting you and are now terrified of them doing it again.
You’re also you’re a bit embarrassed at how your life has been going recently – or rather you’re happy about how your life is going but it’s hard to explain to people who have a different, more usual, way of life. You’re worried that your old friends won’t get what’s going on with you – but you have to remember that there is a reason that you befriended those people back in the day: you became friends with them because they’re good people — and if, in the meantime, they’ve become not so good people who don’t understand then … well, fuck ‘em.
Sure, a bad experience now might sully a good memory of back-in-the-day – and that is a genuine worry, because you like your rose-tinted memories a lot – but that risk is a lot smaller for people you met when you were a highly-selecting/judgmental adult, and together you might be able to remember even more good things about your previous time together – and generate new fun memories too. You’re too young to only live back-in-the-day (see #4) and don’t forget, even if things go wrong, sometimes bursting rose-tinted memories is hilarious and creates new, more interesting tales.
But having said that, you have to remember that not everyone will be on the same page as you regarding reconnecting, especially where the end of the friendship happened more quickly than just fading away through apathy/ineptitude. If they’ve thought of you at all, they’ll have their own narrative about what happened, just like you have yours, and both of them will be subjective, clouded with emotion and reinterpreted over the years. You might have some things you want to say (typically sorry, because of your former social ineptitude) but they might have reached a different conclusion to you, or they might still be on their path, and you bumbling in might stir shit up for them without solving anything. Or your narratives might clash in a way that is problematic for the both of you. As Lily-pup will tell you, sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie and sometimes, it’s really good to give sleeping dogs a Bonio as a surprise for when they wake up. The former is probably more relevant to this discussion.
So … I guess there is a bit of a contradiction on the ‘old friends’ point but despite the idiotic behaviour referenced above, I think you’re sensible enough to know when you’re letting fear rule the day and when you’re avoiding contact under the guise of being considerate. You know the people where the latter applies more strongly: stop using them as an excuse for hiding from those where it doesn’t.
2. Seriously, stop being scared of people
In case you didn’t quite get it – I know you’re not the most socially capable person – the general message of that last section was: you need to stop being scared of people. This point is reiterating that in a different way – I think you need to hear it again and again.
You’re pretty happy with your life and pretty good at ignoring all sorts of nonsense, but you still have this stupid view that your life is a mess because you don’t have x, y and z in place. I think you feel this particularly acutely because you’ve had x but then lost it because you couldn’t bring yourself to do what had to be done to keep it; or you were all about y but lost it through no fault of your own; and you don’t even want z but you feel like you should because .. society. And n, don’t even get me talking about n: you think because you don’t know what you want from n so have just put it in that dark dusty mental drawer and aren’t going to look at it again for a while.
Those things are all true but the point I want to make here is that everyone – well, nearly everyone – feels the same way. A lot of their x, y and zs are the same as yours too: they just seem to hide it better because (as Paul says) you’re comparing their outsides with your insides.
Stop being scared that you’re not enough. Remembering your clowning lessons: you are enough. Or rather no one is enough, and you’re all wallowing in the ball pit together.
So imagine a world full of people like you. Insecure people; people who fear rejection; people who very well might have been sneakily reading this private letter and nodding along. A world where people lose other people all the time for the exact same reasons you’ve listed above. How many budding friendships are unduly cut off because everyone is scared to make the first move? They might want, no need, you to do it but because you can’t, because you’re caught up in your own little cesspool of patheticness and fear, nothing happens.
You know what Louisa, now that I’m writing all this out, it seems pretty sad. Please try to do better now in our 37th year and beyond.
3. It’s all an illusion
A weeks ago, you had a bit of a facepalm moment when you realised that something you’d been quietly beating yourself up about for years wasn’t actually anything to do with you: you’d tied two events together in your mind to play out the worst possible scenario for you, when actually they were completely separate. As soon as you started to think about it logically, you quickly untangled the error but for years, you’ve been emotionally tied to the mistake and it tarnished the two good memories.
You are one for doing that, aren’t you? You get some – usually negative – notion in your head and you repeat it to yourself until it becomes The Truth.
Even forgetting your amazing ability to ruin your own memories, you sometimes forget that your perception of something is just that – your perception, not some objective truth. I think you’re getting better about this but I still think it’s a huge problem for you. I think it’s a big part of your fear of people: you get an idea about how they feel towards you and can’t get past it.
These things often eventually become clear in hindsight – like in the example above – but they bother you for a long time before epiphanies happen. That wastes brain CPU cycles, emotional energy and most importantly, opportunities with people, places and things. You’ve got more exciting things to think about, worry about and do, so stop wasting your potential protecting yourself from hologram sharks.
4. Today’s the youngest you’re ever going to be
Changing the topic slightly, you’re not young any more. You know this intellectually, of course, it’s just hard to know it on a more primal level because you became ‘you’ when you were young, and it’s hard to shake that self image. I refer you, once again, to our favourite cartoon strip on this matter.
So you’re not young, but you’re not old either. Another major thread that came through the letters to our 16 year old selves is that we need to make the most of what we’ve got, physically, while we’ve got it. There were various references to hair loss, energy levels and, in my case, an urging to enjoy my flat stomach, before my belly button before it became a belly canyon in the middle of a power bagel. Well Louisa, here’s some news for you: you need to do that right now too.
With your general walrus layer and current hot weather pimples, you don’t think you’ve got that much going on but I can almost guarantee that in ten years – and especially in twenty years – you’re going to look back with regret for what you’ve lost. Sure, you get aches in your joints and muscles sometimes but the key word there is “sometimes”: your genes don’t bode well in that regard and you know it. You might have lost the flexibility you had ten years ago but you’re stronger now. And I know you’re not bothered about grey hairs, but you’ll be bummed if your hair gets thinner or whatever.
So you know, don’t squander this time. You don’t have to take any medication and you don’t have any fillings, you can dig over allotment beds of clay soil and walk many multiple miles in a day without effort: your body is serving you just fine, make the most of it while you can.
5. Stop stagnating
Hey Louisa, remember when you worked at the university, and you hated your job and you hated your bullying colleagues, but stayed because the pay was pretty good for the amount of work you did, the benefits – from holidays to training courses – were even better, and the environmental advantages better still (access to the cheap student union! all the books I could borrow from the library! funded masters’ programmes!)? You stayed there until the bad shit drove you mad – wretchingly depressed and fumingly angry – because it was the only place you’d worked since university and the good stuff made it feel comfortable.
Well you know what? You’re comfortable again now. Being comfortable is nice but it’s also a trap.
I’m not talking about John – of course not, he’s your favourite dickhead, your life partner in crime – but pretty much everything else. You’ve gone to great lengths to learn to be happy with what you’ve got and that’s great in a lot of ways but equally you’ve lost your fire. You’ve lost your drive and, by and large, your desire to be more than you currently are. That’s … not so great. Being pleasantly comfortable makes you fear change – because things can only go down from here – but change is inevitable so you’re creating a whole lot of anxiety for your future self.
I know you’re working on your version of a “101 goals in 1001 days” list at the moment but you know as well as I do that it’s mostly trival bullshit. Some of it is “to have” not “to be”, and even the “be” stuff is largely inconsequential – do them, sure, they sound fun, but don’t mistake them for actual achievements. As I said above, you’re not old yet and that means you’ve probably got a lot of years left: do you really just want to potter them away? You might be happy on a day to day basis but I’m not sure that’s enough for you. I’ve been thinking about it recently and I struggle to think what has changed – on a meaningful level – for you in the last five years. I know the speed of life slows down when you’re out of your teens and twenties and the intensity of experiences dulls too, but you have to keep moving forward. You really do.
I don’t know what to tell you here – I don’t know how to solve this stuff. You’re at the metaphorical version of the Five Lanes End roundabout and you don’t know which way is forward. I only hope that you are both older and wiser than me and can figure it out a bit better. Do remember this little true story: the last time I was at the real Five Lane Ends, I wasn’t sure which would be the best exit for Frizinghall. Together, John and I narrowed down the choice and picked one. It was a road that we don’t go down that much but it turned out to be the right one – and even if it hadn’t been, the wrong road would have only taken us a little bit out of our way and that’s alright, because we were laughing and joking together on the journey. HINT, Future Louisa, motherfucking HINT.
6. (Most) Things don’t have to be forever
You’ve never known what you want to do with your life. Your fleeting, unrealistic ambitions as a teenager gave way to more long-lived, more realistic ones in your early 20s but I don’t think you really really wanted because you had various easy-reach opportunities to make them happen or at least take the next steps to making them happen, but you didn’t take them. Then when you left the uni, you said you were going to have a “career break” to figure out what was next for you, but you got caught up in an exciting startup wave and you forgot about that figuring out stuff for years, until you’d used up all your energy, enthusiasm and self-confidence. And now here we are.
I think your problem, Louisa – well, one of them – is that you’re scared by the enormity of that question: what do you want to do with your life? Your whole fricking life. That’s a long time, a hell of a commitment: you only get one life and you are trying to come up with the ultimate answer to life, the Lou-niverse and everything. Do you see why that might be a problem?
You know – and have always known – that you have a habit of changing who you are every few years. Why on earth do you think you can find a one-size-fits-all solution to that?
I know that above I warned against pottering, that bimbling through life collecting brownie badges but nothing bigger would damage you to your core, but there is a middle path between those extremes: perhaps your next business idea doesn’t have to be your career for the rest of your life. Perhaps you approach it more realistically and assume it’ll be your life for the next, say, five years, but after that you expect to have something else that captivates your attention.
Now I know there are problems with this. I know that some things can’t be shaken off after five years – they obviously shouldn’t be considered in this way. I also know that five years isn’t long to properly establish a business or a career in a new area – but look what you did in just a few months last time, before the concept of being a “pro blogger” became as outdated as being a shoulder pad salesman. Your sites might not have floated on the stock market to earn billions but they paid your way for a few years. This isn’t really about the money though right now, it’s about getting you moving forward again.
7. What it all boils down to
If the first two points were about not being afraid of people, these last few have been about not being afraid of making decisions – but they’re all about the same thing: you need to start being more assertive about stuff.
You’ve been going with the flow – or letting the flow take you as it sees fit – for a while now. This is the path of least resistance but doesn’t always take you to good places – or if you get stuck in one of those little sheltered coves at he river side, they don’t take you anywhere at all.
A wise man once told you to take responsibilities for your actions. You were scared about making a scary jump and you told him that you wished you drank so you could get drunk and let lose. He told you that it was no way to handle things, that instead you should own your choices and stand by them. He was completely right about that situation and his point still stands – though don’t tell him that he’s right because he has a big enough ego as it is. In fact, claim this whole paragraph is about someone else instead – he’s got a bad memory so he won’t remember it’s about him.
This whole thing isn’t about making you into someone you’re not – you’ll never be a super sociable, ambitious over-achiever and you wouldn’t want to be – but it’s about stopping you slipping away even further. I know – trust me, I’m you, I know – that this stuff is really hard because of your depression and your anxieties but you have to try because not trying is feeding them as much as failure would. Exactly as we told our 16 year old self: “GET OUT OF YOUR FUCKING SHELL, YOU IDIOT. It can’t make you exactly more miserable, can it?”
Anyway, 36 year old Louisa, I should probably sign off because I’ll become you very soon. I hope you enjoyed the birthday breakfast curry I’m currently eagerly anticipating but much more than that, I hope you take these words to heart because I think it’ll be excessively milking this “letter to self” format if I have to write another one in a year’s time.
Get to it, and party on dude,
-louisa, age 35 years, 51 weeks and 3 days.