5 Lessons for My 18 Year Old Self

“I believe that one defines oneself by reinvention. To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself. To cut yourself out of stone.” - Henry Rollins

If you talk with my long time friends or family, you’ll notice I am referred to as two people: Old Kris and New Kris. Old Kris is the cynical, angry, and critical persona that lasted from ages 16-22. These were my cocoon years, spent in emotional hibernation. The reasons for my attitude are complicated, but can be attributed to an understanding of the world as a fragmented, hostile and unfair place that I felt helpless to change.

A Radical Shift in Perspective

New Kris emerged from this cocoon-like state thanks to an epiphany sparked by a growing sense that my outlook was not helpful for me or anybody else. This epiphany was not a thought and cannot be put into words. Rather, it was an instant and radical alteration of perspective. Feelings of alienation and fragmentation were immediately transformed in an overwhelming sense of harmony and unity. The world finally made sense and the torrent of anger and confusion that had dominated my psyche halted to a calm breeze. It was like taking a deep breath after years of gasping for air.

After this epiphany, I was disgusted at how I had been treating myself and others and saddened by the amount of fear in my heart. I yearned to express gratitude, compliment others, and to be understanding and loving but not sure how. The hardest part was convincing others, and parts of myself, that I wasn’t the same person. However, changing old habits took years and involved a great deal of mending loose ends.

Out of this process, I gained confidence in the fact that internal change is possible. While there were many faux pas and growing pains, important lessons emerged from this transition. The following are insights taken from these experiences that I would share with my 18 year old self or anyone who feels as angry and alone as I did.

1). You’re Getting in Your Own Way

A lot of my problems stemmed from my negative attitude about the world. I didn’t realize that my thinking was the root of my misery because I had projected my insecurities outward. For example, I believed people were too afraid to be authentic, and therefore labeled them as fake when really I was terrified of my own vulnerability and fear of rejection.

We have a tendency to point our finger at everyone else but ourselves. We do this because it’s uncomfortable to evaluate our own beliefs and actions and easy to blame others. A lot of the time, the very thing we’re criticizing in others is what we’re guilty or unsure of in ourselves. We self-sabotage ourselves because of a deeper fear of the unknown. Evaluating the origin of our prejudices can help break the pattern of self-sabotage in order to pursue our true desires.

2). Don’t Let Critics Keep You From Being the Person You Want to Be

My attitude was reinforced by a group of individuals with who thought and felt the same as I did. Misery loves company and it's true that we are who we surround ourselves with. I didn’t realize toxicicity of my relationships until I formed others with individuals who were kind, caring and accepting. I didn’t know how to respond to kindness and quickly typecasted them as “fake” or “naive” to maintain my cynical outlook.

During adolescence, friends become our world and have a strong influence on the adult we become. My cocoon thickened to avoid criticism by the very people I believed cared for me. If I had surrounded myself with friends who were happy, caring and accepting I may have turned out to be a different person. It’s important to be mindful of where we invest our loyalty and learn to avoid harmful relationships. Toxic relationships can drain our energy and keep us from becoming our best selves.

3). Don’t Be Too Critical

It was difficult to attract (and keep) confident, caring and accepting friends because of my defensive and critical demeanor. I associated the ability to criticize and critique with intelligence and since I was never physically gifted, I put a lot of stock in this ability. While intelligence is generally a positive attribute, being a smartass is not. Like with internet trolls, knowledge and criticism were means of putting others down in order to compensate for my own shortcomings. For example, it’s easier to express why someone else’s music is bad than it is to create quality music yourself.

Criticism can be helpful to initiate change and shed light on troubled areas. However, it comes with a responsibility to others’ feelings and calls immediate attention to one’s own expertise. Criticism can be used as a defense mechanism by deflecting attention to everyone and everything but the critic. By doing so, one avoids notice of their own contributions. Instead, adopting an open attitude and attempting to empathize before dismissing or critiquing helps broaden our understanding of different perspectives. The ability to do so is a testament not only to one’s  intelligence, but his/her wisdom as well.

4). Travel, Take Chances and Don’t Be So Afraid!

It’s easy to be cynical when you’re understanding of the world is based on 1/10,000,000th of reality. While I was able to travel during my teens, my mind remained within the confines of my privileged suburban life. I was afraid of airplanes, boats, poverty, unfamiliar foods, disease, cultural differences and pretty much anything that couldn’t be found at the mall or supermarket. My comfort zone was compressed into a 10 mile radius from my bedroom.

It wasn’t until years later than I began traveling on my own and realized how complex, inviting and beautiful the world can be as well as how naive my outlook has been. My arrogance kept me from experiencing the multitude of people, places, smells, tastes, sights and sounds waiting to be discovered. I missed opportunities during a time of my life that was ripe for movement, exploration and experimentation. Though I am still young, time spent brooding over Nietzsche could have been spent climbing the mountains he described so passionately in his writing.

5). Be Grateful

Lastly, I would tell Old Kris to be grateful for the abundance of privilege and love in our life. I have two patient parents who love me enough to tolerate my ignorance, friends who stuck with me through my rants and critiques, and teachers kind enough to challenge me without dismissal. I grew up without having to worry about my next meal, my parents’ marriage, if I would have a home, if I had access to education, my health, how I was going to get to work, or if I was loved.

A lot of my anger came from a biased perspective fixated on the unfairness of life. I was blessed with everything while many have very little and because of this, I developed profound guilt about my privilege. However, I’ve since learned that with privilege comes responsibility; responsibility to use this privilege to share our gifts with others and to create a more tolerant and fair world. I also learned to be grateful for my life rather than resent an existence that I had as little choice in as anyone else. While our individual lot in life varies greatly, our desire for love, acceptance, and wholeness unite us.

A Matter of Context

As I reflect on my past, a mixture of emotions arise. While I am grateful to have had this experience and to no longer be so depressed, anxious and angry, I am still disappointed over lost time. I assume at 35 I could write a similar piece to my 25 year old self and feel the same mixture of regret and gratitude. It’s a matter of context I suppose. Life has a funny way of providing us with experiences that we won’t understand or find useful until years later. Though, when we’re in it, these experiences can seem meaningless or cruel.

I don’t know if Old Kris would even consider anything said here. Even if he did, he surely wouldn’t understand the experiences that fostered each insight. However, planting the seed a little earlier may have spared a lot of embarrassment and lost friends and maybe I would have taken a few more chances. Truthfully, I don’t see a stark disconnect between Old and New Kris as clearly as others. The process was gradual and required a lot of small steps. That being said, I do appreciate the joy in my loved ones’ voices when talking about the person I am today. It’s a sign that I am accepted and appreciated, something I had once craved with such intensity that it soured.

*If you have some advice for your 18 year old self, share them on Facebook or Twitter #Dear18yome

Photo by anajay74