White Knuckling

I am officially in my late 20s.  By the New York Times’ standards, I’m no longer a recent college graduate.  In the blink of an eye, there’s been a paradoxical shift in the universe where half my peers suddenly refer to pregnancy as “family planning” as opposed to “terrifying consequences”, and the other half would sooner croak than be tied down by the responsibility of watering an orchid plant twice a month.  At twenty-seven, my Facebook targeted ads are transitioning from acne creams to anti-aging creams, and my recent Google search history chronicles a budding curiosity about the old wives’ tale alleging that plucking grey hair makes it grow back in multiples of three.  (For the record, Google says plucking grey hair does NOT stimulate the growth of more greys…but speaking as an eye-witness, every grey hair my father loses on his head seems to resurface on his back, so why tempt fate?)  While I hope it’s clear I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek and I recognize I have a lot of privilege as a young, white, gainfully employed millenial, I bring all this up because lately I’ve become acutely aware of time quickly slipping through my fingers while I haven’t been fully present.

The first half of my 27th year has flown by.  I’ve filled my time with new and exciting opportunities, each one serving as the launching pad into a chapter more rewarding and fulfilling than its predecessor. Despite having so much to feel positively about, there have been times I’ve allowed the anxiety of venturing outside my comfort zone to cause me to think in terms of  “getting through it”. For example, when I decided to pursue my PMP certification, I couldn’t wait to get past the months of studying that preceded the exam.  With a pass rate lower than 50%, I put even more pressure on myself to pass the first time around so I wouldn’t have to go through it again.  As opposed to feeling relieved after I passed above target in each category, I forged ahead by immediately setting a new goal to find a better job.  Miraculously, the stars aligned and I landed my dream job after only three weeks of intensive interviews.  But the moment I received that glorious offer, I decided I needed to find a better apartment that would lessen my new commute to work.  I repeated the mantra that if I could just get through the longer commute for a few more months, then all I’d have left to do is move…oh, and get through the painstaking process of moving.*   In hindsight, I spent the better part of a year with my foot on the gas pedal speeding to reach my destination without realizing I was driving down a scenic route.

*It’s worth noting at this point how much I’m sincerely looking forward to moving because I’ll be starting a new chapter living with my boyfriend.  I can’t begin to express how grateful I am that he not only loves and supports the neurotic lunatic I am today, but that he wholeheartedly believes I’m capable of growing into the person I strive to become.  He is the North Star that guides and inspires me by way of his shining example of hard work and discipline, and someday I hope to “grow up” to be just like him—even though I’m technically three months and one day his senior.  Our relationship deserves its own recognition and celebration, even during the occasional periods I’ve felt preoccupied with “getting through” life.

Having recognized this pattern, I’m wary of propagating the idea that the degree to which I allow myself to enjoy the present is contingent upon my perceived control over the future.  If I white knuckle my way through the joy rides, someday I may look in the rearview mirror to find I blew past the most important stops.  To challenge my future-oriented tendencies, I’ve started asking myself the following questions when I start to treat life like something to “get through” rather than enjoy:

“What can I do right now?”  I tend to mentally rehearse hypothetical situations to anticipate how to prevent a worst-case scenario from occurring.  I’ve spent a lot of energy conjuring up “escape routes” to mitigate potential sources of discomfort, no matter how remote or unlikely they are.  While my meticulous plans have served me well within certain contexts, if I spent half as much time crafting analogies as I spent constructing elaborate solutions to problems that never even manifest…well, I might know where the hell I was going with this.  Worrying about the what-ifs can trigger unnecessary anxiety.  To keep myself in check, I ask what’s within my control, even if it’s as little as my reaction to whatever’s happening around me.  By focusing on what I can do, I feel less helpless about what’s out of my control and reassured that I’m capable of tackling whatever lies ahead.

“What’s going well?”  It occurred to me recently that I forfeit a lot of my power by giving attention to fleeting negativity that, when obsessively rehashed, can transform a bad moment into a bad day.  The mental energy I use to perpetuate those thoughts could be just as easily channeled into thinking about how many overwhelmingly positive reasons there are to have a good day.  No matter how persistent or severe the stressor, practicing gratitude is the most effective way I gain a clear, objective perspective of my good fortune.  I take stock of all the places I receive support, positive affirmation, and self-esteem before I complain about what’s lacking.  After I cover the full inventory of my health status, family life, relationships, career, hobbies, and financial stability, I always discover that even when I feel insecure about a couple categories, something is always going right.  I prefer to approach gratitude from a place of abundance by appreciating what I have rather than leveraging someone else’s misfortune to feel better about my circumstances, but I don’t get to police how anyone else counts their blessings.

“Where am I?” Relax; I’m not diving into existentialism here.  Maybe I’d have something more insightful to share if spent my early 20s Keeping Up with Kierkegaard instead of the Kardashians.   Asking myself, “where am I?” means checking in to see where my feet are literally planted the moment I feel anxiety beginning to brew.   More often than not, I’m in the comfort of my home or I’m in a familiar, safe place like my car or my office.  Acknowledging that I’m not in the presence of an imminent threat creates a comfortable space to sift through my thoughts.

“What am I sacrificing?”  I’m quick to ignore what I need now if I believe it will help me achieve what I want later.  As a result, I’ve sacrificed a lot of today’s peace for tomorrow’s preparedness.  It’s important for me set boundaries and make conscious choices about how I allocate my time so I don’t end up giving too much of myself to something I come to realize later I didn’t want.  There’s nothing wrong with playing the long game and learning when to compromise is an integral part of earning almost anything worth having, but it’s also important to decide at what cost I’m willing to make sacrifices.