7 Things I Learned By Starting Over In My Late Twenties

“Sometimes I just wish I could get a little bit hit by a car,” I joked half-heartedly. “Not seriously injured, just enough so that I could stop for a while.” 

It was early July in northern Maine. Every living thing seemed to stretch towards the warmth of the midsummer sun, luxuriating in relief from a long, dark winter, savoring the decadence of being alive. Here I was, in my favorite place on the planet, with my favorite people on the planet. Yet each time I began to sink into that hum of collective contentment, I was yanked back by a paralyzing and perplexing anxiety. 

“Are you really that miserable?” my mom responded with concern. And just like that, her question cut through the facade of fineness I was so invested in believing and projecting.

I don’t know what compelled me to answer with honesty that day. All I know is that the next thing I said changed the course of my entire life.

“Yes, I guess I am.” 

It’s a funny thing, honesty. We are experts at hiding, suppressing, trapping our most inconvenient truths in the darkest corners of ourselves. As long as they stay down there, we do not have to integrate them into our self-understanding. More importantly, we protect ourselves from the painful, searing shame we are certain would result from sharing these truths with those around us. But eventually, by accident or by choice, these truths crawl their way to our surface, begging for air, for light, for attention. Someone asks us a question and before we know what’s happening we respond, for the first time, with the truth. 

My life, by all accounts, looked perfect. I had just finished my first year of graduate school at Harvard, where I was pursuing my Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Sociology. I was thriving academically, working on several papers with highly-esteemed professors and working on my own impressive-sounding projects. I lived in a gorgeous apartment in a highly desirable area of Boston with my partner of almost five years, an incredibly kind, intelligent, and handsome man beloved by my friends and family. 

I was the one who “had their shit together.” The success story. Yet I was plagued by this chronic, low-grade desire to escape myself and my own life. But a small but persistent voice said, “Not this.”

Over the course of the next few months, that admitted truth grew like ivy around the pillars of my perfectly constructed life. In August, I notified Havard that I would be taking a leave of absence from my Ph.D. program. In September, I broke my own heart and ended things with the man I once thought I would spend my life with. I moved out of our apartment and into the cliché that was my parents’ basement. I had no income, no plan, and no understanding of why I had just burned down everything I had spent my life building. I only knew that I was drowning and this was the only way to survive. 

And so I rested, I healed, and I set about rebuilding myself from the ground up. The year that followed was without a doubt the most challenging, transformative, and fulfilling period of my life. 

If there is a voice deep within you that says “not this,” a gut feeling that you are living someone else’s life, that there is something you can’t put your finger on that just doesn’t feel right, listen. Even if it means starting over, listen. Starting over, especially when it means stepping away from all the things you are “supposed” to want, is incredibly scary. At times, you will feel crazy, alone, lost. It won’t be easy, but I guarantee it will feel easier than continuing to drown in your own life. And it will be worth it. I promise, it will be so worth it.

Here are seven lessons that I learned in the aftermath of starting my life anew, from beginning to construct a life that is not perfect but that is completely, unapologetically, mine.

1. You can loosen your grip on the steering wheel.

I spent years terrified that if I loosened my hold over my life for even a second, the whole thing would spin out of control. This belief trapped me in perfectionism and kept me playing small and safe. It turns out this fear was not only completely unwarranted but actually backwards. The ride got a lot more enjoyable once I stopped white-knuckling my way through life, and I don’t see myself totalling the car any time soon. I learned that you have to let life surprise you and trust that you are capable of taking the turns as they come, because you are. 

2. You are the only one who knows what is right for you.

I used to spend hours paralyzed over even the smallest decision. I would consult friends, read articles, Google my specific circumstance in the hopes that someone else on the internet had faced the same exact decision and made the objectively right choice. I know now that I had no idea how to distinguish between what I wanted and what I believed others expected me to want. There is nothing wrong with gathering information, but outsource your decisions to other people long enough and you will find yourself living someone else’s life. Worse, you will forget how to listen to the voice inside you that knows deeply what it wants. You must learn to worship that voice. It is the only way to build a life that is custom made for you.

3. You are probably more attached to the story of yourself than the reality of it.

I used to crave the hit of approval I would get from summarizing myself to someone at a party or networking event. I spent years editing and polishing my story to maximize this response. The idea of losing it was terrifying. But once I began to dismantle that narrative, once I was no longer able to hide behind its shining facade, I realized that the actual building blocks of the story didn’t mean as much to me as I believed they did. And I was able to let them go. Stories are how we explain ourselves to others. When you start living life only on your terms, you stop feeling the need to explain yourself at all. You become the main character instead of the narrator, you just live it.

4. Your opinion about your life is all that matters.

It doesn’t matter how your life looks or sounds to other people, especially that amorphous “them” you spend so much time worrying about. What matters is how your life feels to you. This seems simple but it is actually profoundly subversive in a culture that asks us to constantly prove and perform our worth. When your only metric is how good, how true your life feels to you and you alone, you start to get better at noticing what feels right and what doesn’t. You stop wasting your precious and finite attention on calculating how other people will react to each move you make.   

5. No one cares as much as you think they will.  

I was terrified that people would think I was insane to throw away everything I’d worked for, that I would be showered in judgment and criticism. In reality, most people didn’t care or notice at all, they were too busy with their own lives. The only people that do react will show you one of two things. Some people will show you that your relationship was actually based on superficial commonalities. They will judge and question and criticize your decision to move your life in a more authentic direction. This will hurt. You have to let these people go. Because, listen, there are those who will surprise you with unconditional love and support. These are your angels. These are your people that you must surround yourself with as you move into your new life. 

6. Joy is your birthright.

I had to unlearn the idea that enjoyment must be earned with hard work. That you can only relax after you’ve exhausted yourself entirely. We live in a culture that valorizes overworking and exhaustion. The most socially acceptable answer to “how are you” is “busy.” We feel guilty for taking a second for ourselves, for having fun when we should be being productive. But joy is in your DNA. In building my life from the ground up, I realized that joy exists all on its own. I learned to grant myself space to feel good just because I am alive. I learned that I didn’t need to feel guilty for prioritizing how much I enjoyed something when deciding whether it had a place in my new life.

7. You never really start over.

I was surprised again and again by the ways in which aspects of my former life transformed themselves to help me in my new one. You carry forward a lifetime of learning and loving and living. You have an arsenal of knowledge and skills that will serve you in ways you can’t yet predict. Most importantly, you are clear on what is not for you, and that is invaluable.