Being the eldest of three children, I was, by default, the ‘guinea pig’ of the family; the first of my siblings to do or go through almost everything – puberty, school, friends, relationships, you name it – with no older sibling to advise or buffer against my (inevitable) future mistakes and mishaps. I remember so badly wanting an older sister or brother to show me the ropes, so that I wouldn’t have to be the one to do it. Luckily, I did have my parents to fall back on, but it’s not quite the same as having someone nearer to your age, who grew up in a similar environment and culture, to help you navigate the way through.
Sometimes I wonder about what I’d tell myself or what I’d do different if I could go back and chat with my 19-year-old self. I wonder if 19-year-old-Lena would even listen to 29-year-old-Lena! Knowing me, probably not. But if I could go back, here are a few of the things I’d try to drill into my young self.
You’ve declined so many things out of fear, and that makes you so sad! The things that you’ll be most proud of when you look back are the things that you did even though they scared the living shit out of you. Things like moving to a new city for college, getting your Swedish driver’s license (dear Lord), moving to a new country for an internship, applying to grad school, getting your first ‘real’ job, and more. Some of these were not necessarily positive experiences (like calling out your ex bf for his shitty behaviour or quitting a job that wasn’t making you happy), but every time you do something that pushes you out of your comfort zone, you always feel better afterwards. Even if you fail! Because you know that at least you tried, and did not allow fear to make decisions for you.
But also learn to say, ‘No’.
Obviously, it’s important to say yes to things that you want to do but decline out of fear or uncertainty. On the flip side, this is also the time to start the ever-important, lifelong task of learning to say, ‘No’ to others. I think, when we’re young (and especially if you’re a woman), we’re afraid of saying no because we don’t feel like we have true autonomy over ourselves yet. But feeling empowered to say no to things is just as, if not more, important as feeling empowered to say yes. This is a tough balancing act to figure out, but what it really teaches you is to tune in to your authentic self and identify what you truly want and desire, regardless of what others want or expect. You don’t owe anyone anything, so innately knowing what you want and need is essential in making decisions that will feel right both long- and short-term.
Love, love, love, love, LOVE your body
WEAR THE SWIMSUIT. GO SKINNY DIPPING. EAT THE PIZZA. You only get one body, one life, and they’re both too important to waste ANY time feeling bad about how you look. Seriously, tell the voices in your head, the ones telling you you’re not good enough, skinny enough, pretty enough, smart enough, etc., to FUCK RIGHT OFF, pardon my French. No one is looking at you or judging you, and even if they are, it’s because THEY are insecure. When you don’t care about what anyone thinks, you stop judging others either, because who really even cares what anyone looks like? You’ll want to look back on that beautiful summer day and remember the important things, like the heat of the sun on your skin, how icy cold the lake was when you first jumped in, that first, delicious bite of a perfectly juicy nectarine, the sound of people laughing and chatting around you, or the feel of your dog’s soft head laying against your knee as he snores…NOT how miserable you were because you hated your thighs. Love your body, and thank it every day for being there.
Get help when you need it
Not that you can’t get help when you’re older, but now is THE TIME to get the help you need (and we both know you’re going to need it). Those things that are bugging you will not go away magically, and dealing with them now is much, MUCH easier than stuffing them away and having them follow you, lurking behind every corner. As a student, there are countless resources that are easy to access and free or affordable. Go to those ‘lame’ interpersonal support groups at your school’s counselling centre. These groups will by no means be fun, but they will help you so much to get out of your head and hear other people’s issues. They’ll also make you feel like you’re not a total weirdo for experiencing things or feeling the way you do. The hardest part is making the decision to get help, but just do it. Pick up the phone, make the appointment, be totally honest, and keep going back.
Travel more/sleep less
This is one that I commend you on, past-self. While I in NO WAY think that getting older or having children or any of that means that you can’t travel as freely as you want (my parents are proof), I do think that there is something about being young that makes you much more resilient to ‘rough traveling’, as I call it. By this, I mean the kind of travel where you get a super cheap flight but it’s at 3am at the crappy local airport with only two gates, or book one hotel room to share with five other girlfriends and take shifts sleeping in the bed, or arrive somewhere with no idea where to go or what to do and barely any money. As you get older, your budget, and therefore your standards for traveling will inevitably go up, but for now just focus on creating memories during those kind-of-crappy-but-also-totally-awesome trips. Soon you’ll be able to shell a little more money for a direct flight or a nearby hotel, but having experienced the budget airlines and out-of-town hostels will only make you appreciate the little upgrades more.
Never worry about being ‘cool’
There are so many situations where, instead of showing your real feelings (curiosity, excitement, nervousness, whatever), you act blasé and stuck up to keep up the appearance of being ‘cool’. You think that being cool is about acting unimpressed, bored, in a been-there-done-that kind of way. Well, guess what? That attitude doesn’t make you cool, it makes you look like an un-approachable jackass. It zaps the energy and enthusiasm out of others, and it makes you cynical and lame to be around. You get only ONE life, little Lena, and most of the people you meet that are good and that you want to keep in your life don’t give a shit about you or anyone else being cool. They like you because you’re over-the-top, silly, enthusiastic, awkward, real, and experience the same human emotions as everyone else. Being ‘cool’ is overrated, and the only truly cool people are those who don’t care what anyone thinks of them, regardless of how ‘uncool’ that is.
Be realistic about adult relationships
This will be one of the toughest things for you to learn, I think. Relationships are hard, especially as an adult, and for you, being realistic about them will mean realising that no relationship will ever be ‘perfect’. Some will be long-term, some less long. Some will be smooth and steady, others rocky and short-lived. Some will teach you a lot about yourself, and some will teach you about other people. While this might make you sad or overwhelmed at times, be sure to always appreciate everyone who comes into your life for the person that they are and the unique things they bring with them. Let go when you need to, fight for things when you need to, and, above all else, be kind.
Just stop. You are you. ONLY YOU. Not anyone else. Your experiences, your life, your choices, your advantages, your skills, your brain, your heart, cannot, I repeat, CANNOT possibly be compared to those of any other person out there. Envy is a useless and toxic emotion, because not only does it put you down and make you feel like crap, it minimizes the fact that other people also go through tough things and have less-than-desirable circumstances. If you find yourself feeling jealous of someone, go talk to them about their life and ask how they’re really doing. I guarantee you’ll uncover something that you couldn’t have known from stalking their Instagram profile or LinkedIn page (anyone else do this, too?? Lol). The world is abundant in it’s possibilities, and there is more than enough to go around. Stop comparing yourself to others and learn to accept your journey for what it is.
So, what do you guys think? Have anything to add? Something odd about being young is that being young is all you know, so you really can’t imagine not being young and having all the time in the world to do things. Which is kind of true, but also not. The truth is that no one knows how much time they have, or how many chances they’ll get. Whatever age you are, RIGHT NOW is the perfect chance to do the things you are afraid of. Not tomorrow, or next year, or in five years. As always, that’s much easier said than done but I’m continuously working on it 🙂