“There’s no way I can assure you that it won’t be completely traumatizing.”
These words were spoken to me by a professor I was working for my freshman year of college. I had been accepted into a program from freshman majoring in Plant Sciences which gave you the opportunity to work in a related laboratory on campus for hands on experience. I had ended up choosing a laboratory based on the professor in charge rather than the showiness of the lab (just another time I’m glad I went with my gut). He let me have my own project I got to help design (students in fancier labs were doing their professors’ or the grad students’ busy work). One day he decided I should present it to a group of Plant Sciences graduate students who were also presenting their projects.
As intimidated as I was (these were graduate students with projects on a whole different level; I was a shy freshman feigning understanding of half the technical terms thrown around the lab and then googling them later), I agreed to do it.
Again, the encouraging words I received were:
There’s no way I can assure you that it won’t be completely traumatizing.
It might sound funny, but my professor could not have handled it better for me and I have carried those words around to remind myself anytime I’m about to do something I’m nervous to do.
I hate when people try to assure me that something I’m worried about is going to be or go okay. It’s not realistic. When you take a risk or do something you’re afraid of, there is no guarantee things won’t go horribly wrong, that it won’t be “completing traumatizing,” that it add a tally to the number of times you fucked something up. That’s just the truth.
Here’s the thing, though. Unspoken but understood in my professor’s “pep” talk was this: BUT you’ll survive.
(I did survive, by the way, and it wasn’t traumatizing.)
There have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve done something scary for me, but it was still relatively easy or short-lived. Other times, it has been an excruciating decision or process BUT I survived.
Here are four of them (in chronological order):
1. I changed my major.
You’ve gathered, I hope, from the beginning of this post that I began my freshman year of college as a Plant Sciences major. I’ve always been a huge plant nerd. My emphasis was in biotechnology because that was the most academically-geared emphasis and I thought I had to do it because I did well at science in high school.
My days in the lab mentioned above were pretty cool. I learned a lot and got to use cool equipment that made me feel like a real scientist. One of the things I learned, though, was I am not built for the day-to-day life of a scientist. I may find experiments fascinating, but being required to carry out meticulous and often repetitive steps for experiments and take tidy and organized notes to write paper is not for me.
I heard a little whisper inside me tell me Social Work. So, I changed majors.
Except, it wasn’t that easy. I overthought every possibility and overvalued everyone else’s opinions.What will so and so think? What if I’m not supposed to change majors? What if there’s a whole different major I should change to?What if I regret my decision but it’s too late? What if my heart is too soft? What if I don’t end up liking it? What if, what if, what if?
It was a painful number of months knowing in my gut what I wanted to do, but my mind making it more difficult than it needed to be. Eventually, I got tired of the limbo and went for the plunge. It was excruciating to know not everyone thought I was making the best decision, and it was excruciating to have no assurance I wasn’t making a huge mess out of my life. But after my first semester of social work classes, it got better. I felt confident. I felt free.
Social Work was a much better match for me. I felt like I fit in a little better with the other students pursuing the same thing. If I hadn’t changed my major, I wouldn’t have ended up at my previous job working with refugees, a job which would forever change me, open eyes, break my heart, strengthen my soul, and lead me to friendships with some of the most amazing people you could imagine.
2. I told people about my wonky brain.
This includes, at various points: my parents, my counselor, a few close girlfriends, a close guy friend I would later marry, and some other people including anyone on the internet but those were the scariest because those relationships meant the most to me.
It was really, super duper hard to try to put into words feelings I had tried to bury for years, articulate thoughts I was ashamed of having, open up about a world inside me I couldn’t guarantee any of the listeners could related to.
I remember where I was each time and the uncomfortable, terrifying exposed feeling I got that made me want to run away.
I was on the phone when I told my mom, pacing around my apartment.
I was sitting on a hotel bed when I told my dad who was in town for a conference.
I was obsessively fidgeting with the hair tie on my wrist and wishing she would stop looking at me when I told my counselor.
I was in the car when I told Linnea.
I was texting when I told Ariel and my husband (we were just friends at the time, aww).
I was driving around in a hot mess when I told Roger.
My counselor was a trained professional, but other than her, I couldn’t trust I would be met with any type of understanding.
I got one, “I kind of know what you mean. X heartbreak just happened to me.”
But mostly, I got things like…
I had no idea.
I’m sorry I didn’t notice.
I can relate to feeling down but I’ve never thought about killing myself even on my really bad days.
What can I do to help?
It’s okay to be mad at me for not doing anything.
I’m glad you’re getting help.
I think my brother had a good counselor he liked; let me ask him for the name.
I don’t really understand but I’m here for you.
I usually left those conversations with a mix of relief and WHY THE HELL DID I JUST DO THAT. THERE’S NOT GOING BACK.
It was excruciating, but each time I survived. I felt stronger. I felt more confident and in control. I felt free. I didn’t haven’t to pretend anymore. And I got the help I needed, even if I didn’t get a single, “I know exactly what you mean.”
3. I confronted a boyfriend.
I ended up marrying this boyfriend, Evan. But there was a point where I wasn’t sure I would because our relationship had parts that I finally admitted to myself I couldn’t keep up with my whole life.
[Disclaimer,I already asked him to read this section and give the green light though he assured me I didn’t need to ask]
To keep it brief but blunt, he could be harsh. If you know me, you know I’m rather soft. And while his harshness could be met with equal Type A harshness in his relationship with his best friend and they could be laughing and carrying on 10 minutes later, I was not fairing so well. I internalized everything, cried in bathrooms, and felt like I was walking on egg shells constantly. I kept thinking if I could just change this about me or avoid doing this one thing that set him off then I would be good to go. When I finally realized this was not how I wanted to live or be treated my whole life, I had to face the idea of ending the relationship if things didn’t change.
This broke my heart. I already loved Evan deeper than I thought possible. I already knew he had an amazing soul. I had already let him see so much of me I knew it would tear me apart to say goodbye. But I also believe I should be respected (it just usually takes me a while to understand when I’m not). So I told him how I felt. I told him I loved him but my heart wasn’t strong enough for his anger that appeared in a flash over some of the most basic things about me, like dropping my phone and keys all the time. I told him it wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t live like that.
It was excruciating thinking about living without him. It was excruciating standing up for myself when I’m always second guessing my perspective. It was excruciating seeing him cry. It was excruciating knowing it would break two hearts if I left as I was prepared to do what I had to do for myself. It was excruciating wondering if there was anyone out there who I would connect with the day I did with him.
He did change (obviously–we’re married now). Like, mostly overnight. I’m not saying it was perfect smooth sailing from there. Things do take time, but the willingness to change was there and the progress was immediately large and self-correcting. (Also, we’re both two people trying to live one life. I’m not perfect either, at all. I’m just talking about one aspect at one point in our relationship.)
Which, side note. I think it’s important to emphasize: if someone is not willing to hear you out and change after you sincerely explain how something they’re doing is hurting you, you need to GET THE FUCK OUT. I wish I could make the font of that last sentence enormous so nobody misses is. A partner’s unwillingness is a sign they don’t care about you enough as you wish they did or they say they do. Their unwillingness is a sign they need to get their own shit together before they’re allowed anywhere near yours. It’s a big, bold statement the relationship is not right and can’t be, at least for now. If you’ve communicated how you want to be treated and there is no or minimal action to indicate your partner is invested in change, sister/brother, you’re fooling yourself if you stick around. Even if they have a good heart. I’m serious!
But back to our regularly scheduled programming….
Like I was saying, it was excruciating. But I survived. I felt stronger. I felt more confident. I felt free. And our relationship got a bajillion times better. My mental space got a bajillion times better.
4. I told my work family I was leaving the job.
I mentioned earlier, my previous job was at a refugee resettlement agency. The people I worked with are some of the most incredible, selfless, hilarious, and wise people I’ve ever met. Our relationships with forged through the fires of nonprofit work (if you’ve worked in one, I think you’ll know what I mean), deepened through candid life conversations over lunch and near death experiences canoeing, and strengthened through silly snap chat groups we definitely didn’t utilize during meetings.
When it came time to move on, it was painful. Not to be dramatic but telling people I was leaving felt like I was getting a divorce. I wanted to cry every time I broke the new to another person; I even cried in the bathroom a few times.
It was excruciating to feel like I was letting people down. It was excruciating knowing how much I would miss my comrades. I knew it was the right move (my position was computer-heavy and my body couldn’t sit still any longer), but it was still excruciating because I wasn’t ready for that chapter of my life to be over.
I made the move that needed to be made. There was no guarantee I wouldn’t hate the new job or my friends wouldn’t be mad. It was excruciating. But I survived. Here’s the part where I repeat ” I felt stronger. I felt more confident. I felt free.” But this wasn’t one of those times. I do think it made me a stronger person to do what I needed to do even though it was hard. But I miss that place, my co-workers, my clients (some of whom I’m still in touch with) quite a bit. I’m glad I did it, though. Things got better. I work a job with kids now which is much more my pace. So in that way I feel more free while still cherishing my time at the refugee office.
What excruciating thing are you scared to do? What is it your overthinking? What, just entertaining the idea of it, makes you a hot mess?
I think you should go for it. Do it. Say it. Ask it.
There’s no way I can assure you it won’t be completely traumatizing. But you’ll survive.
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PS – Do the thing.