I turned 31 yesterday and I feel pretty good about it. I think this is the most satisfied I’ve ever felt with my life around a birthday — which is strange because every year I always feel some sort of anxiety about getting older.
I don’t think I’m the only woman that experiences this. Women are held to age-related expectations that men just aren’t, and every year of a woman’s life comes with a milestone that tells us what we should do; and every year another one just passes me by.
It used to get to me that I hadn’t been joining my friends and other women I know in these rites of passage, but this year it stopped bothering me. I’ve not been married, I’ve not owned a house, I’ve not had a kid, I’ve not had a conventional life by any stretch of the imagination, but my life suits me just fine now.
Here are four ways I’ve learned to embrace getting older:
1. Balance physical beauty with physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health
For much of my life, I’ve fought against a lizard-brain impulse to be pretty because earlier generations and advertisements and self-esteem books told us that it’s not what’s on the outside that counts; what counts is on the inside. I’ve always wanted to be better than pretty because pretty girls don’t get to have rich intellectual lives or interesting things to say (which is a total lie, but it’s a lie I told myself for a very long time).
Yes, we should focus on our inner lives, develop our ability think critically, and strengthen our confidence in the opinions we have about the world and art and politics and culture. Yes, that’s all true, but don’t we all love beautiful things? And don’t we feel good when we like what we see when we get dressed? And when I look in the mirror, isn’t what I see pretty?
I have started to remember that no matter what I weighed, or how well my clothes fit me, I’ve always perceived myself as unappealing. So I’m working really hard to get over my own perceptions and address reality. The reality is that my body is not less important than my intellect. The reality is that my body has a unique shape (mostly circular) and it’s a canvas for me to dress in things that make me feel beautiful, strong, professional, comfortable, etc., etc.
It’s also an indicator of what changes I need to make to live a longer, more comfortable life.
Like any work of art that needs molding and shaping, so is my body, and diet and exercise can help me look the way that I like and in a way that makes my muscles feel good, instead of being ashamed of having a body that isn’t a generally accepted shape.
2. Honor wins, big and small, for ourselves and for those around us
I found a gray hair in my brush one evening as I was getting ready to go out to dinner. I started to feel anxious, but then I thought about Meryl Streep and Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris, women I find beautiful and admirable. I felt like my grays made me more like them. I know it’s weird, but I felt proud that my age was starting to show and I felt like I’d overcome something, even though I didn’t actually do anything at all except notice the color of a strand of hair. Win!
I celebrate the fact that I get to host a weekly radio show every time it airs. Every week that I get to do it, I’m so grateful that I started on this path. Win!
My boyfriend painted his first watercolor painting a few months ago. I was so proud of him, the painting sits across from my makeup table so I can see it in the mirror every morning when I get ready for work. Win!
My dog is less afraid of the ocean after many months of slowly introducing her to the water. She can now stand 3 inches deep for about 20 seconds before wanting to escape. Win!
There is so much about the world and the people we meet that can tear us down or make us feel pretty bad about ourselves, especially for women, but not exclusive to women. I think it’s a better choice to fight against those things that tell us that we should be better, skinnier, younger, richer, taller, whiter, smarter, quieter, more conservative, less conservative, or whatever and just celebrate all the enjoyable things that happen. Even if they’re weird or small.
3. Embrace vulnerability and sensitivity
I’m an extremely emotional person and I suffer from anxiety. I used to think of these as weaknesses. I’ve needed to leave work early because I was so overwhelmed by my tasks or by other personalities that if I didn’t step away immediately, I’d break down. There have been times that I cried uncontrollably for hours after getting yelled at and I wouldn’t be able to stop.
It took someone telling me to “stop being a panty,” for me to realize how wrong they were for saying that to me, even as I was saying it to myself. And I realized how wrong I was for trying to force myself out of having a completely natural emotional reaction.
What I learned to remove from the emotion was the implication that my reaction had something to do with anyone else other than myself. It was no longer about the thing that hurt my feelings. I was crying because a situation created stress for me, and my body needed to release the tension.
It doesn’t make me embarrassed to cry anymore because I know that my body reacts to extreme stress by releasing tension through my eyeballs in the form of a saline solution. It makes everyone else around me nervous and upset, though, and I’ve just had to let them deal with it. I’m not going to stop crying until I’m good and ready and healed.
There is this idea that hypersensitivity diminishes the value of emotions, as if I should save up my tears for only special occasions like weddings and funerals.
That’s a load of crock. My emotions are my emotions and they’re the way I experience the world and if a really strong drum beat makes me cry as much as a wedding or a funeral, that’s just the way it’s going to be. (Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda has actually made me cry because I loved the way it sounded so much)
4. Kindness and respect are the only expectations
I have ambition, which is something I really enjoy about my life. My ambition has taken me all over the world and has led me into situations that I’m so grateful to have experienced. But I’ve let go of needing reality to match my preconceived expectations.
I imagined I’d have kids by now. I don’t. What I do have is a wonderful dog, and a kind boyfriend, and after many years of life experiences, preparation and education, I’m finally working in the field that I love.
Other people suggest that I should start having kids. I won’t. But I will be kind and respectful to the people who made the suggestion, and I will also respect their life choices and desires.
I imagined that I’d be a successful owner of my own organization by now. I’m not. Like many entrepreneurs, I tried and failed at a lot of things and owning a company was one of the things I didn’t succeed at. But I am successfully navigating through opportunities that could improve the current quality of my life and I’ll keep doing the same in the future.
As for kindness… I think it’s the value that I place above everything else.
Not enough can be said about the value of kindness. There are a lot of mean people, and I have no control over that. But I can try my best reduce my own meanness, to make the people around me feel safe, comfortable and fairly treated. If there is someone in need, I have to do my best to improve their situation, no matter who they are. I don’t know why this seems so hard, but it is. And it’s the only expectation that I hold myself accountable to: that I’m kind.
I don’t always feel like I’m doing things right, and sometimes I have a bad day and I’m not kind or respectful, or sometimes I call myself fat or ugly or stupid, or sometimes I wish that I had made different choices that led me to marriage and security. But that’s okay, eventually I remember the things that I’ve learned about being happy and I forgive myself.
So that’s what made this year different. It’s a pretty big change for me since I’m used to longing for things I don’t have. But this year, I’ve gained some perspective and I guess I just don’t mind too much the way things are looking from here.