Dear 17-year-old self,
I am not the woman you expect. I am not the ideal, successful “career woman”; the brilliant, beautiful, ambitious young professional working in a corporate office. I am a recent college graduate; lost at sea, a sea of societal expectations and pressing decisions about the future. Perhaps I am not the woman you have dreamt I would be, but that does not negate the wealth of experiences that will mold you into the strong woman you will become. Your most difficult experiences and the lessons you will learn about life, love, and womanhood will lead to your greatest successes and reveal you to be far more resilient than you know. I know that you are incredibly stubborn and that you will dig in your heels, refusing to listen to the life lessons I have to impart, but please take them to heart, live by them, and grow by them.
You Are Worth More Than Your Body.
In third grade, you heard the first of numerous questions about “why you’re so thin”, and it stung. Since then, it has seemed to you that people relentlessly comment on your appearance. You feel pressure to have the clearest skin, to not be so tall and gangly, and to walk gracefully wherever you go. You wish you could shrink into the crowd and become inconspicuous in a sea of people who look perfectly beautiful to you. I will be honest with you: You will not grow up to have clear skin, flawless makeup abilities, or perfect teeth, but none of those traits matter. You are kind, caring, and magnanimous, and your heart will carry you further in life than you believe. On your twenty-first birthday, a stranger will confront you and tear your appearance apart. You will not care in the slightest. Those words will sting, but you will recognize pain and struggle in someone you have never met and will feel deep empathy. You will realize that society’s pervasive whispers that beauty defines womanhood and that kindness, empathy and love are worthless are a mere notion. I am not the woman you expect. I strive to demonstrate my womanhood through my character alone, through my heart, and I will succeed in that pursuit.
The Pursuit of Academic Success is Not the Pursuit of Happiness.
You are a perfectionist, and you are likely cringing internally at the notion that success and happiness are not interwoven. In college, you will believe that the ultimate marker of success, the crown jewel of your college experience, is graduating Summa Cum Laude in just three years. In the process of pursuing your goal, you will endure stress that will shake you to the core. The anxiety you will feel over your grades will consume you for years, lure you away from friends and family, and cause you to feel dejected and worthless. You will question the importance of grades as a measure of success and begin to prioritize health and leisure. You will graduate Summa Cum Laude after enduring deep struggle, in the exact timeframe you planned, but the joy of graduating with highest honors will fade after a mere second, as you realize that you sacrificed the most important parts of life to reach your goal. I am not the woman you expect. I understand that success is living life to the fullest, and self-worth should stem from strength of character alone, not from the indications of success that society prizes.
Cherish Every Moment You Have.
At age nineteen, you will experience loss for the first time. You will be away at college when you hear the news, unsure of how to cope away from your family’s loving arms. You will feel completely alone until you realize that grieving alongside your loved ones will heal you. You will come to learn that cherishing life is not selfish; on the contrary, it is how your lost loved one would want you to live. Living and loving is the most venerable means of honoring life.
Nearly three months after your college graduation, you will receive news of another loss. You will be taken aback, stuck in a tailspin. You will need to re-learn how to cope. Your mind will flash back to your college graduation, the very last time you spent with the person you lost. The memory will leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth and a sharp, staggering pain in your heart until you realize that you made the most of that special time and that the one you lost was happy and honored to share in your milestone. You will feel lighter and happier as you realize that you savored the day and will cherish that time forever. I am not the woman you expect. I have coped with loss and learned that healing stems from appreciating life, even in life’s darkest moments.
Vulnerability is Something to Embrace.
You are staring down at a blank Word document, frozen, unable to write. You have no desire to share your challenges with the colleges to which you are applying. You refuse to open up to others, terrified of feeling hurt by them. Your greatest fear is losing the acceptance of others by revealing your perceived weaknesses.
At twenty years old, you will receive an opportunity to share your story through writing and it will change your life forever. You will realize that the gentle whisper of your pen across paper frees you, that writing strengthens the connection between yourself and the world. You will discover that your words have the power to draw others closer to you and that your writing has the power to ignite change, breed hope and foster acceptance. You will embrace your darkest feelings and fears, transforming them into a thing of beauty. Most importantly, you will find a burning passion and a sense of purpose through writing; all because you chose to not only let others look through the window of your worldview, but to open the door to your life. I am not the woman you expect. I have forged a deep connection not only with myself, but with others, through finding my passion, transforming my struggles into beauty, and embracing my past, present, and future wholeheartedly.
I am not the woman you expect. I do not base my self-worth on my position in life, but rather, my character and my personal growth. I am not the woman you expect. I have not only experienced happiness, but also tears to become the woman I am today. I am not the woman you expect. I am here to assure you that due to the challenges you will face and the lessons you will learn, you will become far stronger, wiser and more resilient than you could have ever imagined.
Your older, wiser self
Kelly Douglas is a recent graduate of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a B.S. in Psychology and a minor in Law and Society. She is an aspiring writer who is passionate about sharing her experiences with others. Her work has been featured on Her Campus, HelloGiggles, The Mighty, Project Wednesday, Thought Catalog, and Yahoo!, as well as in the “Written By…” anthology. When she is not writing, Kelly enjoys listening to music and cuddling with her cat.
* This piece was previously published by Thought Catalog.