7 Strategies for Staying Afloat During a Major Life Transition

7 Strategies for Staying Afloat During a Major Life Transition | Whether you're graduating, moving, getting married, or just feeling overwhelmed and uncertain, I've got seven strategies to help you infuse more joy, meaning, and simplicity into your crazy days.

So far, 2017 has been the Year of the Major Life Transition (or MLT, a totally unofficial acronym I invented just now). In January, within the span of just a few weeks, I received and accepted a job offer, moved from a medium-sized town in north central Indiana to the most populated city in the state of Texas (#cultureshock), and started my first full-time position out of graduate school. In many ways, I was so ready for the change–ready to be done with resumes and cover letters and actually launch my career, ready to live 15 minutes rather than 15 hours from my boyfriend, and ready for a new beginning after two physically, mentally, and emotionally draining years of school. And since I had left most of my belongings in boxes when I moved back in with my parents last fall, I was even ready in the practical sense.

And yet, nothing can truly prepare us for the ways in which an MLT will transform our world, nor can we fathom the range or patterns of emotions we may experience throughout the process. In the months since the move, I have felt excitement, joy, peace, and conviction that I made the right decision, as well as loneliness, overwhelm, exhaustion, and doubt–sometimes within the span of a single day or even a single hour. Throughout all these ups and downs, a few key tools and strategies have helped me to stay afloat, and since many folks are undergoing MLTs this time of year, I’d like to share them with all of you. And even if you’re not graduating, moving, and/or getting married in the coming months, think of the following as ways to infuse more joy, meaning, and simplicity into your days. 

1. Decluttering in every area of life

Back in December, I wrote about my discovery of Joshua Becker’s book, The More of Less, and my subsequent mission to pare down my material possessions. Since then, I’ve continued exploring what it means to live a more minimalist lifestyle, and I’ve gotten rid of a ton more stuff in the process. I’m by no means a hardcore minimalist, but I can now attest to the incredible freedom that comes with allowing yourself to let go of things that no longer serve you and merely take up your time, space, and attention. And during periods of rapid change and perpetual uncertainty, it’s so much easier to find peace of mind when your surroundings are simple and uncluttered.

This “back to basics” mentality has begun to spill over into other areas of my life as well. For example, I’ve started taking a hard look at my technology-related habits in an effort to reduce digital clutter. I gave up social media for Lent after realizing how many of my precious after-work hours were spent mindlessly scrolling through newsfeeds, and once I survived that first painful week or two, I found myself actually enjoying the break. And by the time Easter rolled around, I noted significant improvements in my ability to focus and remain patient and present. Now that Lent is over, I’m slowly adding social medial back into my life so that I can find the balance that works best for me. The free iPhone app Moment has been really helpful in this regard, since it allows me to track the total amount of time I spend on my phone, the amount of time I spend using specific apps, and the number of times I pick up my phone each day.

I’ve also tried keeping my personal calendar as decluttered as possible. In high school, college, and graduate school, I maintained a pretty busy schedule–I worked, volunteered, played instruments, and joined a number of clubs. These activities brought me immense joy and introduced me to some of my best friends. Right now, though, I’ve found that what I need is massive amounts of margin–white space in my calendar to allow me to breathe, rest, and do things on my own terms. I’m still recovering from the move and feeling its aftereffects in waves, and quite honestly, I think I’m still recovering from the intense anxiety of the past two years. At some point, I’m sure I’ll be ready to get more involved at my new parish, join a book club or yoga studio, or start volunteering again. But right now, I just need time, space, and stillness. And that’s okay.

2. Revitalizing my workouts

I’ve been doing yoga on and off for years, and I’ve always cherished its numerous physical and mental benefits. Recently, though, my practice was feeling a bit stale and in need of a little somethin’ somethin’. Thankfully, one of my lovely readers introduced me to the Yoga with Adriene Youtube channel, and y’all, I am in love! Adriene Mishler, the yogi behind it all, is incredibly talented, encouraging, funny, and real, and she has created dozens (hundreds?) of free workout videos for all levels and purposes, including losing weight, relieving anxiety, improving digestion, and healing a myriad of injuries. (She even has holiday yoga, yoga for when you’re angry, and yoga for hangovers!) Her motto is “find what feels good” and her emphasis on personalizing your practice based on what your mind and body need on any given day has completely rejuvenated my workouts. She’s also so good at helping you retrain your brain to notice negative self-talk and replace it with more positive and accurate messages. This month, I’m making my way through her 30-day Yoga Camp series, so I’m sure this won’t be the last time you’ll hear me gush about my new YouTube bff. 

3. Meal planning

I first discovered the beauty of meal planning in college, but now that I’m working full time, I have an even greater appreciation for its benefits. I love cooking and experimenting in the kitchen; however, when I arrive home in the evenings, the last thing I want to do is dream up what to have for dinner. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I’ve reached decision fatigue for the day. And that’s where meal planning comes to the rescue! On the weekends, when I’m more rested and less rushed, I take some time to find a few fun yet relatively simple recipes to make the following week and then head to the grocery store to get everything at once. It’s so much more appealing to prepare a homemade meal after a long day when you’ve already done the thinking and the shopping! And because I’m #human and don’t want to spend all my time in the kitchen, I also leave room in the menu plan for using up random leftover ingredients in an omelet, salad, etc, or simply heating up a healthy-ish frozen meal. Balance, simplicity, and flexibility, y’all. 

4. Starting the day with a creative and energizing activity

As you may know, I took a little blogging hiatus during the move so that I could focus my time and attention on the 1.67 million tasks that apparently come with relocation. And while I’m grateful that I allowed myself this space, I quickly began to notice that not having a regular creative outlet was draining in its own way. However, when I was ready to start writing again, I faced a bit of a dilemma–I was always too tired and braindead to produce anything noteworthy or even grammatically correct in the evenings, and I was already waking up pretty darn early for work. I used this conundrum as my excuse for a while until I realized that if I didn’t actually do anything about it, I might use it as my excuse forever. So I began tracking my time (using the free web service MyHours) and analyzing the data in search of opportunities to streamline and/or rearrange my schedule. I ultimately concluded that mornings were my best bet and figured out how to free up about 45 minutes to write before work. Yes, I now get up really darn early, but I’m kind of loving it. I feel so much more energized and alive when I start my day with a creative activity, and writing has been an invaluable way to express and process all of the thoughts and emotions that this MLT has triggered.

5. Consuming lots of great audio content

During the workday, I get by with a little help from my friend Pandora radio. I’ve created artist-based stations for deep concentration (e.g., Explosions in the Sky), chilling and contemplating life (e.g., Ben Rector or The Head and the Heart), and rocking out/powering through projects (e.g., Smashing Pumpkins or Bleachers). And when I’m cooking, cleaning, or commuting, I’m almost always listening to one of my favorite podcasts, which range in topic from minimalism to productivity to Catholicism. These podcasts inspire, challenge, and entertain me, while also getting my mind off whatever might be stressing me out at the moment.

6. Being honest with others

Every time I finish exchanging pleasantries or remarking on the weather with someone, I feel like I ought to be awarded this shirt (#introvertproblems). But I also understand that it’s not always the right time and place to discuss life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I have learned the hard way that many people just want you to say “okay” or “fine” when they ask how you are. As a result, I often end up erring on the side of caution and promoting the very small talk that I despise the most. Recently, though, I’ve tried to find a balance and take advantage of opportunities to dive a bit deeper. When someone I feel I can trust asks me how the job/move/etc. is going, if it seems like the right setting to provide more than a one-word answer, I’ll try to be honest; there is a lot I love about my new life, but there are also times when it’s stressful and exhausting and I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. The results? Family members, friends, and even several new coworkers have shared amazing words of encouragement, advice, or wisdom, not in a shallow or dismissive “you’ll be fine” sort of way but in a compassionate “I’ve been there” manner. Simply knowing that I feel overwhelmed because I’m human, and not because I’m lazy, inadequate, or incapable, can go a long way.

7. Enjoying the little things

By which I’m mainly referring to my regular practice of enjoying a delicious bowl of ice cream. Because even with all the above strategies in place, sometimes you just need to plop down on the couch, dig into some mocha-Oreo-cookie-dough-swirl (which is totally a thing, and a beautiful thing at that), and remember that everything is okay, you’re going to make it, and by golly, you deserve to enjoy the ride.

Do you have any MLTs on the horizon?

What strategies do you find helpful for maintaining health, happiness, and perspective during stressful or uncertain times? 

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A Playlist for Connection: Songs for Healing & Harmony in a Broken World

A Playlist for Connection: Songs for Healing & Harmony in a Broken World | In times of pain and division, we need real, authentic connection more than ever. Here are some of my favorite songs for cultivating relationships and interactions based on honesty, charity, and humility--and for remembering the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

I really, really didn’t want to write about the election, or about politics in general.

I felt that I couldn’t possibly say anything that hadn’t already been said–or take any stance without my position being misconstrued.

And since my blog isn’t about politics, I reasoned that it was acceptable, even advisable, for me to avoid the topic.

But then I found myself totally overwhelmed with pain, frustration, and hopelessness regarding the current state of our nation and world. It seemed that I was witnessing more nastiness and division–both online and in real life–than I remembered observing at any other point in my life. In so many other upsetting and uncertain circumstances, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks, I had seen people rise to the occasion and come together–but this time, it seemed that our differences were only driving us further and further apart.

So I did what I so often do in these situations: I made a playlist.

It’s such a simple thing, maybe even a silly thing, but throughout my life, music has truly been there to help me muddle through my lowest lows, celebrate my highest highs, and live out every experience in between. I’m always searching for the perfect soundtrack to match every mood and moment, from driving around town to drinking coffee to decorating the Christmas tree, and this time was no different. So I compiled a list of songs that just seemed to resonate with me in these post-election weeks, that seemed to say what I’ve been struggling to put into words. Then I tried to figure out what they all had in common. And then it hit me.

In one way or another, all of the songs were about connection.

About supporting and sacrificing for one another.

About walking a mile in another’s shoes.

About turning enemies into friends. 

About persevering together in the face of pain, disappointment, and uncertainty. 

About our common tendency to pretend that everything’s okay when it’s not. 

About how love has always been–and always will be–the antidote to fear. 

About the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

And this common theme made so much sense, because based on my observations over the past few weeks, I believe that what we need the most right now is real, authentic connection–the kind that demands honesty, bravery, and vulnerability. The kind of connection that requires us to listen intently to others, even if we don’t understand–even if we can’t imagine ever understanding–their views. The kind of connection that challenges us to share our own stories and beliefs with charity and humility, free from any air of snark or superiority. The kind of connection that absolutely hinges on the fact that every individual–whether loved one, stranger, or reviled politician–is a human being with worries, dreams, strengths, flaws, and–no matter how unlikely it may seem–the potential for good.  

So I  wanted to share this playlist with all of you, because although this blog isn’t about politics, in so many ways, it is about connection. It’s about letting people into the messiness of our lives, balancing virtual and real-life interactions, practicing self-care so we can better serve those around us, and being open with our struggles and encouraging others to do the same. And such connection is especially important as we approach the holidays, which, for many of us, means spending time with family members and friends with whom we strongly disagree on a variety of issues.

I had hoped to write this post without any disclaimers, but given the sensitivity of the topic and the fact that some of you may not know me in real life (and therefore may not read my true intentions as readily), I want to make this very clear: I’m in no way trying to minimize the suffering or fear of any individual or group. I’m not implying that we can just bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles and suddenly get along. What I am saying is that I know we can do better. We have to do better. It’s a broken world out there, so let us each do our part to heal and be healed.

Spotify users: If you’re currently logged into your account, you can click on any track below and start listening right away. If you’re not logged in, clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to do so. 

Non-Spotify users: Clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to sign up for Spotify. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a pretty amazing digital music service that I use practically everyday, so I highly recommend it! (I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for this endorsement; I’m just a huge fan!) But if you prefer to get your tunes another way, I’ve also created a graphic displaying all of the track and artist names. 

Songs for cultivating relationships and interactions based on honesty, charity, and humility--and for remembering the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

 

What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses

What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses | I recently discovered that many of the sensory and emotional experiences I've had throughout my life are indicative of a trait known as high sensitivity. Understanding what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has helped me to better understand myself, but I also recognize the potential for danger if I use this label--or any other label--as an excuse for avoidance and complacency.

Recently I was trying to explain to my boyfriend why I have such a strong aversion to violence and gore in TV shows and movies.

It’s not that I’m some delicate flower who can’t face the harsh realities of the world, I tried to say. It’s that I literally feel these things. When I see someone get shot or stabbed, I experience physical pain. When I see blood, even fake blood, I feel like I’m bleeding.

As I said these words, I felt frustrated, partly because I wasn’t sure whether I was making any sense, and partly because I wondered whether I really was a delicate flower and just didn’t want to admit it.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that my unusual sensitivity extends far beyond on-screen violence. In real life, if someone is in physical pain–whether from a gaping wound or a simple sore throat–I feel it. Heck, if someone is in emotional pain, I feel that, too, even if they’re trying their best to disguise it. I soak up the vibes of those around me like a sponge.

Well, folks, it turns out that there’s a psychological term for this stuff. I’m currently reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, in which author Susan Cain discusses scientific, historical, and sociological perspectives on introversion and provides advice on how introverts can leverage their unique strengths. I just finished a particularly interesting chapter pertaining to a personality trait that is often associated with introversion: high sensitivity.

When I first heard this term, I kind of brushed it off, probably because I envisioned a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) as someone who loves babies and puppies and cries every time he or she watches The Notebook. But according to Dr. Elaine Aron, a California-based psychotherapist and leading researcher in high sensitivity, Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS) affects 15-20% of the population (including some extroverts) and has as much to do with responsiveness to physical stimuli as to emotional stimuli. And the more I learned about the trait, the more I thought, Oh my goodness, this is me. And I’ve never even shed a tear during The Notebook.

On her website, Aron offers a quick self-assessment to gauge if you might be a Highly Sensitive Person. As I went down the checklist, I couldn’t believe how many of the items I was able to tick off (including, of course, “Other people’s moods affect me” and “I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows”). A few other examples:

“I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.” Some of my most vivid early memories involve unpleasant sensory experiences. Once upon a time, I saved up all my birthday and Christmas money to purchase a sparkly Little Mermaid costume from the Disney Store–only to find that the sequins sewn all over the outfit made it unbearably itchy, and I couldn’t bring myself to wear it. Another time, I participated in a day camp in which members of a local high school dance team taught us some simple steps and then led us in a performance during halftime of one of the school’s basketball games. I was so excited to show off my moves–until the other participants and I filed into the gym and the noise from the crowd, the court, and the speakers nearly knocked me off my feet. My hands flew to my ears for protection, and it was everything I could do to hold back tears. I hated that I wanted to cry, but everything just felt so incredibly loud that I could barely stand it. Luckily, some of these sensitivities have lessened a bit over the years, but others remain. For example, I sleep with both earplugs and an eye mask because apparently even at night, the world can be too bright and loud for my liking.

“I have a rich, complex inner life.” You may have heard of “resting b*tch face”; I have “resting zoned out face” because, as I mentioned in my last post, I tend to get lost in the La La Land of my own thoughts. If you’re talking to me, I’m listening intently, but the minute the discussion stops, farewell, friend! I’m off to another dimension. My vivid imagination is a blessing as well as a curse, because the same creativity that enables me to dream up new and exciting ideas also allows me to think of every possible bad thing that could happen, ever. But either way, there’s always a lot going on up there.

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My brain 95% of the time, with approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of all thoughts being totally irrational worst-case scenarios.

“I am deeply moved by the arts or music.” It’s a good thing that I’ve been able to slowly adapt to louder and louder noises over the years, because one of my favorite things to do is attend concerts. (I still try to avoid being right up near the speakers, though, and it often takes me quite a while to wind down after such sensory overload.) Music isn’t just a fun diversion for me, it’s practically a spiritual experience. The right song at the right moment (or Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” anytime) can easily give me goosebumps, bring me to tears, or both. 

“Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.” This is SUCH a first-world problem that I’m trying to overcome, but I am literally the reason why “hangry” became a word. So out of concern for those around me, I pretty much always have a granola bar with me just in case.

“When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.” Just ask anyone who has ever been in the passenger seat when I’m trying to park a car. Or sometimes even turn on a car. It’s bad, guys.

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My brain the other 5% of the time, when people are watching. What is this “driving” of which you speak?!

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

As you can probably tell, I love learning about personality, temperament, and what makes people “tick,” especially when it provides valuable insight into my own thoughts and experiences. For example, studying introversion has helped me to better understand how to take care of myself and leverage my strengths in both personal and professional situations. It’s also helped me to feel less ashamed of my weaknesses–and realize that, as Cain argues in her book, some of my “weaknesses” are actually just neutral personality traits that feel like flaws in our extrovert-oriented society. And discovering that my Myers-Briggs personality type (INFJ) is shared by less than 1% of the general population has certainly helped to explain why, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider.

Similarly, finding out that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) has helped me to make sense of so many experiences I’ve had throughout my life, from racing thoughts to intense feelings of self-doubt to physical symptoms like headaches, stomach pain, and muscle tension. Researching the condition has enabled me to manage it more productively and communicate my struggles to others. And perhaps most importantly, by embracing my diagnosis, I’ve been able to separate my illness from the essence of my being. I have anxiety, but I am not my anxiety.

And now, I may have another piece of the puzzle–I’m likely a Highly Sensitive Person, and that’s not the same as wimpy, picky, or just plain weird. I mean, I totally am weird, but there’s a lot more at play there than my sensitivity.

I do realize, though, that there’s a fine line between using labels to better understand myself and using labels as excuses, and I’m still trying my best to find–and avoid crossing–this line every day. I want to know and take care of myself so that I can better know and take care of others, not so that I can live in a bubble free from anything that makes me feel anxious or overstimulated and totally ignore the needs of those around me. This might be my first instinct, but I don’t have to let my instincts become my actions.

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My first reaction to pretty much any situation involving people, places, or things.

I’m constantly presented with opportunities to enter into uncomfortable situations in order to achieve a greater good. Most of us are. And I don’t intend to let my introversion, anxiety, or high sensitivity stop me. Rather, I hope that by developing a greater sense of self-awareness, I will be able to find a balance between leaning into the discomfort and respecting my limitations. Maybe I need to leave a party or event earlier than everyone else. Maybe, after a particularly impassioned discussion or difficult confrontation, I need to take some time to be alone and restore my emotional equilibrium. Maybe I need to arrange my home or office to reduce the likelihood of sensory overload. Maybe I simply need to dive in headfirst to the situations that scare me the most just to prove to myself that the world won’t end as a result. 

What do you think about the concept of high sensitivity? Do you think that you or anyone you know might be a Highly Sensitive Person?

Do you like learning about personality types? Why or why not?

A Playlist for New Beginnings: Songs for Moving On & Starting Over

A Playlist for New Beginnings: Songs for Moving On & Starting Over | Here are some of my favorite songs for saying goodbye to the past, embracing the future, and remembering that it’s okay to not have it all figured out yet.

This past weekend, I attended a concert featuring Mat Kearney, one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters. As he strummed the first chords of his early single, “Nothing Left to Lose,” I was immediately taken back to the very first time I ever heard the song: 9th grade, on the school bus, in the dark of the early morning. The melody caught my attention as it played over the radio, and in typical 2006 fashion, I lamented over the fact that I didn’t know the name of the song or artist–and therefore wouldn’t be able to purchase the track on iTunes and download it to my brand new, hot pink iPod nano. (Will this be the “walk uphill both ways to school” story that I tell my future children?)

In that moment of reminiscence, I was truly awed by the power of music to so instantly and effortlessly transport us to a different time and place. Often, these times and places are from our past; for example, whenever I hear the Beach Boys’ hit “Barbara Ann,” I’m suddenly a little girl again in my old house on Heritage Street, and I’m dancing around the living room with my dad and younger sister as the tune plays on our stereo. And whenever I hear “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry, I find myself a college freshman once more, cruising in the car with my girlfriends on a sunny August day as we pass by a fraternity house and hear the song blasting from their speakers.

But I think that music also has a way of carrying us into the future–whether by lifting us out of a dark place and encouraging us to press onward, by enabling us to grasp the bigger picture and deeper meaning of our current situation, or by simply reassuring us that we’re not the first person to ever feel this way. So last spring, when I could finally begin to discern the light at the end of the grad school tunnel, I started searching for songs that took me to the place where I wanted to be. Over time, what began as just two or three tracks gradually blossomed into a full-fledged playlist that I’m excited to share with all of you today. The songs that comprise my “New Beginnings” soundtrack speak to a variety of emotions and experiences associated with moving on, from waving a hearty goodbye to the past and embracing the future in all of its uncertainty, to hesitating in taking the first steps forward, to remembering that it’s okay to not have it all together yet.

So without further ado, happy listening! I hope that wherever you are in your life right now, these songs will bless you with a dose of positivity and encouragement. And if nothing else, some of these tunes are pretty darn catchy! (I dare you to sit still through “Goodbye,” “Movin’ on Up,” or “Welcome to Your Life.” Go on, try it.) Then, when your jam session is complete, comment below with your thoughts on the playlist and/or tell me about your favorite songs for moving onward and upward!

Spotify users: If you’re currently logged into your account, you can click on any track below and start listening right away. If you’re not logged in, clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to do so. 

Non-Spotify users: Clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to sign up for Spotify. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a pretty amazing digital music service that I use practically everyday, so I highly recommend it! (I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for this endorsement; I’m just a huge fan!) But if you prefer to get your tunes another way, I’ve also created a graphic displaying all of the track and artist names. Enjoy! 

A Playlist for New Beginnings | Songs for saying goodbye to the past, embracing the future, and remembering that it’s okay to not have it all figured out yet.

Good Mourning: Grieving the Loss of Past Experiences

Good Mourning: Grieving the Loss of Past Experiences | Sometimes the best way to move forward is to give ourselves permission to grieve experiences and identities from our past.

I’ve always loved a good, sad, heart-wrenching love song, and I think I finally realized why.

Interestingly, it’s not because I’ve actually experienced a terrible break-up. Although I’ve had my fair share of crushes, dates, and awkward romantic encounters that I’m hoping we’ll all laugh about in 10 years, I don’t have any actual ex-boyfriends. And although I can certainly relate to the pain of having unreciprocated feelings for someone (I was the mayor of Friend Zone City from 2006-2014), I can’t relate to what it’s like to be hurt by someone who actually told me he loved me. As a result, my affinity for melancholy music puzzled me for a long time (and probably freaked out my current boyfriend). But last week, as I was driving to work and listening to Bring on the Night, a beautiful, brave, and tragic tune from The Corrs’ latest album, it occurred to me that break-up songs don’t just help us get over romantic relationships. These melodies are there for us as we mourn all kinds of losses and cope with all sorts of pain: friendships that end with bitter words and cold silences, as well as those that simply fade over the years as everyone grows up and grows apart; identities we shed like snakeskin in order to adapt to our continually changing circumstances; and memories so golden and sweet that we wonder if maybe the best years of our lives really are behind us.

For me, one of the hardest parts of growing up has been learning to allow myself to mourn these losses in healthy and productive ways. I tend to swing to one extreme or the other: I either bottle up my feelings and tell myself to get over it and quit living in the past, or I let the grief consume me and color my present circumstances with longing and regret. I also tend to focus so much on what I no longer have that I neglect to celebrate what I have gained in the process. So today, I’m cranking the sad tunes and pouring my heart out, in hopes that putting my thoughts in writing will help me to reflect on these losses (or perceived losses) in new ways, to swim through the sadness and, rather than drowning in it, come out on the other side.

One loss I continually struggle with is that of my identity as a musician. I played the piano from age 6-16 and the viola from age 11-15, until I no longer had time in my busy high school schedule for adequate practice. Giving up these instruments was not a decision I made lightly, and to this day, a part of me aches whenever I am reminded of this former me, perhaps by the sound of a string quartet or the sight of a grand piano (swoon). I miss the duets and life chats with my piano teacher; I miss filling the rooms of my house with music and silently tapping out scales and arpeggios on my desk at school; I miss mastering the classics that have delighted for centuries and figuring out catchy new pop songs from the radio by ear; and most of all, I miss having a way to speak when words weren’t sufficient, a means of allowing my feelings to fly directly from my heart to the keys or the strings without having to go through my overly anxious and analytical brain first.

And yes, I realize that music can most certainly be a lifelong passion, and that in theory, I can pick up playing again whenever I choose and take my instruments with me wherever I go. However, as I get older and begin to see my adult life filling up with other responsibilities and pursuits, the more I begin to doubt whether I will ever regain my identity as a musician, or whether I should even strive to do so. It would take a considerable amount of work, as my “music brain” is rusty, my fingers have lost their former ease and dexterity, and I no longer have weekly lessons and yearly recitals to provide structure and motivation. In addition, there are so many places I want to go and things I want to learn and people I want to spend time with that I don’t know how playing an instrument–let alone two–will fit in. I’m not saying that I’ll never sit down at a piano or pick up my viola again, but I also don’t want to promise myself that I will, at least not on a regular basis. But no matter what, I am eternally grateful for those years of musical exploration and expression and for everyone who supported me along the way.

Another loss I mourn is that of my athletic side. (I always hesitate to refer to my former self as an “athlete,” since I never played an organized sport; when people at the gym used to ask me what I was training for, I would laugh and say “life.”) Prior to a string of injuries and health issues that have kept me largely sedentary for the past 4 years, I spent hours on the road, on the bike, on the mat, and in the pool. I was determined to overcome the perceived lack of athleticism that had haunted me throughout years of elementary and middle school gym classes, and in the process I honed my strength and speed and flexibility until I was able to out-run and out-push-up many of the other girls and boys. (My ability to throw, catch, and kick is a different, and far more comical, story…)  The gym was my second home, and I owned more workout clothes than regular clothes. When I wasn’t working up a sweat, I loved to spend time creating new workout playlists or catching up on the latest issue of Runner’s World. I had incredible energy levels without drinking a single cup of coffee and was far more focused and relaxed in school.

This training came at a price, though, and despite my attention to safety and proper form, I experienced several major injuries. Maybe I pushed myself too hard, maybe I have bad luck or weird anatomy, or maybe it was a combination of things. All I know is that even after multiple cycles of physical therapy, a shoulder surgery, and months upon months of rest, the pain isn’t completely gone to this day. I feel like I’m living in a completely different body now, one that tires from carrying grocery bags or shopping at the mall and frequently feels stiff and awkward. In the past few months, I’ve been able to start easing into yoga again, and that has been an incredible blessing both mentally and physically. I doubt that I’ll ever return to my former level of fitness, and I’m okay with that; it might even be for the best. But I also wonder if I’ll ever be able to run, bike, or swim again at all, and that thought is much harder to handle.  For now, I’m just trying to be grateful for every movement that I am able to perform.

In addition to the loss of these identities, I am saddened by the conclusion of certain experiences, particularly by the end of my time as an undergraduate student. My campus, with its infectious energy and breathtaking beauty,  provided the landscape for a whirlwind four years of growth, creativity, excitement, and discovery. I met some of the best people I may ever know, developed a passion for public health, traveled abroad for the very first time, and started my journey home to the Catholic Church. At my commencement ceremony, as I stood in my cap and gown and addressed my fellow members of the class of 2014, I reassured everyone that this was just the beginning, that the best years of our lives still lay ahead. At that time, I was feeling inspired and hopeful, and I truly believed what I was saying. In the two years since then, I hate to admit that my 24-year-old self has often thought otherwise. Grad school was lonely. Therapy is helping.

As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I will admit that I feel a bit lighter after putting all of these thoughts into writing. Before I close, though, I feel I should add that I don’t want pity, nor do I need to be reminded of the many people who would gladly trade their problems and losses for mine. I’m incredibly blessed to have food in my pantry and clothes in my closet and a roof over my head and people who love me. In fact, I realized that I needed help precisely because I had all these things and was still miserable, precisely because I had such a full life and yet felt so empty. Part of turning my outlook around is allowing myself to grieve if that’s what I need to do, regardless of how others may view or judge the process. I hope you, dear reader, will understand; however, it’s also okay if we disagree. I’ve got my break-up songs to get me through. 😉