5 things that helped me get back on track.
First off, my hope for you is that you will never feel this way. I wish you nothing but happiness and pride when looking back upon your life. But at 36-years-old, I know that I’m far from the only person who’s come face-to-face with the reality of an unsatisfactory life.
In my case, there were a couple of memorable moments where I realized I felt like I had squandered my entire existence. I first recognized the feeling when I opted not to go to my high school reunion when I was 28… despite it taking place just a few blocks from my home in Downtown Saint Paul.
It happened again when I was 30 and I attended a casting call at The Mall of America for The Biggest Loser. Every would-be contestant had to take turns in a circle talking about whatever they were most proud of in their life.
I realized that there was nothing in my life that made me genuinely proud of myself.
Of course, it’s not as if I had done nothing with my life by age 30. The problem was that nothing I’d accomplished had any lasting value for me. Not only that, but I felt as if I had no path of my own and had basically gone wherever the wind blew me.
It was an unfulfilling way to live, and it took me about 5 more years to begin to find my way. But today, I can confidently say that although my life isn’t exactly where I want it to be, I’m proud of how far I’ve come and where I’m going.
And it’s occurred to me that a few of the tactics that have helped me change my ways might even help you too. Just in case you ever find yourself aimlessly drifting in this world and feeling like you’ve already wasted too many of your years.
1. Start streaming Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
I actually began watching Mister Rogers more than a year ago, before I began writing here on Medium. Well, to be fair, I first watched it back in the 80s as a kid.
But I’m suggesting you start streaming the show as an adult. Trust me, Forensic Files and NCIS can wait. If you’ve been feeling like your life isn’t on track, you definitely need some real positivity filling your mind.
There’s nothing better than Mister Rogers to help you easily shift your mindset. Listen to it while you work. Watch it with your family. Let the innocence and earnestness soak over your soul.
What I love most about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is that it’s not just relevant today — it’s necessary. Just like children, grownups need to know that they’re special and they matter. If you are going to lead a meaningful life, you’ve got to believe that you have something good to give the world.
The work of Mister Rogers can help you believe in yourself. It can even help you relax and quit worrying so much about what you should or shouldn’t do and instead tune into doing what you love. Just take a look at all of the unashamed adults taking real joy in their passions — it’s enough to inspire any adult to pursue their truth.
Watching Mister Rogers last year helped inspire me to pursue a real writing career, and I’m so glad I paid attention to those feelings.
2. Try dreaming big. Really big.
If you’re feeling down and out like you’ve lost your way, or perhaps have never even found it, it’s easy to tell yourself that you don’t deserve to dream big. Maybe you grew up in an environment where you were discouraged from dreaming at all.
Far too many adults grow up to lose their sense of magic and along with it, they also lose their ability to dream. We talk about being realistic or practical as if dreaming is bad for the soul.
Over the past year or so, I’ve learned that the ability to dream big is probably among the most important characteristics you can hone as a grownup. Is that really so hard to believe?
Giving ourselves the permission to dream enormous (as in so big they’re scary) dreams opens up our entire lives up to a little something called possibility. Possibility is closely linked to positivity and optimism.
And it is absolutely life-changing.
As I began watching and reading more of Fred Rogers’ work, it inspired me to dream big. If he devoted his life to sharing the good news that every single person has something good to give this world, surely I could go after my dream to write about difficult topics.
My big dream is to create a body of work that helps other adults manage their big feelings in a positive way. I aim to write about very human issues which so many of us are afraid to speak about openly.
And I dream to create a solid career with such writing. To be honest, as time passes, I think my dreams grow bigger and the possibilities continue to expand.
3. Allow your trauma to inform your purpose.
One of my favorite online writers is Mastin Kipp, and he often talks about how your trauma can inform your purpose. That’s a great way to look at your past, even if you aren’t especially proud of yourself right now.
There’s a lot of trauma in my past including a family history of mental illness, abuse, and some very poor choices I’ve made along the way. I lost most of my twenties due to depression, and struggled to make friends as a woman who was diagnosed with autism later in life.
All of those things added to a sense of worthlessness in me for a very long time. I didn’t know what I could offer the world, and I mostly wanted to hide.
But Mastin Kipp is onto something when he talks about using your trauma to inform your purpose. In a nutshell, it means figuring out how you can use your negative experiences in a positive way.
How can you use your trauma to make the world a better place?
This is an incredibly productive yet often overlooked question.
4. Evaluate your locus of control.
At one point in high school or college, you might have learned about having an internal versus an external locus of control. People with an external locus of control tend to feel as if life is something that just happens to them.
On the other hand, those with an internal locus of control enjoy a greater sense of power over their own lives.
Many moons ago, when I first learned about the concept, I was embarrassed to admit that I felt (mostly) powerless over my life. I wondered if it was even possible to change your locus of control, and it took me many years to even try.
Today, I am pleased to report that you really can switch from an external locus of control to an internal one. And I’d say it all starts with daring to dream, and then working toward those big dreams every single day.
The good news is that making the switch is much easier than you might think. Once you open yourself up to a world of possibilities, doing the work becomes slightly addictive. You start finding keys to locks you never knew existed.
For me? It’s almost as if I spent my entire life on “try me” mode, and then suddenly switched over to the real thing once I began writing last year (and finally started working to achieve my dreams).
I learned a valuable lesson that we really do have much more control over our circumstances than we often want to believe. In some ways, it’s easier to feel shafted by the universe and then tell ourselves that there’s no point in even trying to change our lives.
If you have an external locus of control, you can do the work to start taking responsibility for your outcomes and eventual success. Once you start putting in the work to better your life and begin achieving your goals, you will experience a pride that carries you to the next step.
5. Let go of your fears.
Whatever happens, one of the greatest things you can do for your future is to let go of your fears. I know that seems easier said than done, but if you’re already at a place of extreme disappointment with your life, what more do you really have to lose?
Personally, I wasted plenty of time just because I was afraid to go after the life I wanted. I was afraid of angering my parents or winding up in hell. Afraid to look foolish and afraid to feel like an utter failure.
But holding onto all of those fears did nothing to build my future. Those fears kept me stuck making choices I didn’t even want. Or, those fears left me swaying in the breeze.
One of the biggest problems with living by our fears is the way that leaves us feeling paralyzed as if we have no options. So we tell ourselves that we’re stuck and we really believe it. And then we make all of our decisions as if we have so few choices.
Of course, we keep telling ourselves we have no choice.
Years down the road, if we find ourselves feeling like we have too little to show for all of our years, we may look back at our lives with shame or regret. All because we were too afraid to dream and take risks.
I no longer believe in giving fear that kind of power over my life. It’s just not worth the pain.
And we’re all worth so much more than that.
I hope you never get to the point where you feel like you’ve wasted your life, but if you do, let me tell you that hope is not lost. Although you may have grown up to believe that adults aren’t special and responsible people don’t have big dreams, I’m pretty sure that your freedom and future rests upon your ability to see the world with such childlike wonder.
So go ahead and believe you’re somebody special.
Give yourself permission to dream big.
Let your trauma inform your purpose.
Pursue an internal locus of control.
Finally, let go of the fears that weigh you down.
You’ll be amazed at just how far those steps will take you.
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