I like to use my birthdays as opportunities to look back and forward, taking stock of myself and my life story. It’s a different experience than at New Year’s, when I’m more focused on releasing from the year before and creating intentions for the year to come. Birthdays seem to give me a longer view of myself, a different way of marking my growth.
I recently turned 41, and found myself thinking about my situation 10 years ago: who I was, what I believed, what I feared and hoped. A lot can change in 10 years. A marriage I was deeply committed to ended in that decade. I made and walked away from friendships, creating a strong, supportive circle of women friends. I learned how to (and how not to) date consciously. I lost two beloved pets and adopted three new furry babies. I fell in love and out of love twice. I was broke, betrayed, robbed, manipulated and abused—and I was strong and resilient. I turned everything around.
In those 10 years, I learned what it means to honor myself. I learned to trust my instincts, fearlessly face and embrace my own truth, define and stand by my core values and live in alignment with what matters most.
I learned through trial and error, stumbling into toxic love affairs, trusting where it wasn’t deserved, struggling against intense grief and anger, playing roles that I’d outgrown or that never fit me in the first place. I learned it in the failure of my marriage and the loss of my husband and married identity, and I learned it as I came to understand exactly why my marriage failed.
Honoring myself became a priority after the two unhappy, overwhelming years when I allowed someone else to hold me hostage in my own life. I allowed my home to be invaded, my emotional space to be crowded, my boundaries ignored and overrun. As I emerged from that black hole, I began to understand that I’d been compromising myself to earn the approval of my partner, and when that didn’t work, compromising myself even further. I faced this truth, recognizing that I’d done the same thing during my marriage. A different situation, a different man, but the same pattern of choosing them, and their validation, love and approval, over me and my own self-respect, fulfillment and values.
Coming out of that second relationship felt oddly like a second chance to recover from my divorce—I was in the same place, just two years older and hopefully somewhat wiser. After my husband and I separated, I had the opportunity to examine myself and create a new life. But caught up in an emotional hurricane of rage, grief, resentment, loss, fear and disillusionment—feelings I’d suppressed and pushed aside in the months leading up to our final separation, I didn’t embrace the chance to build that life.
Instead I ran headlong into the worst relationship possible, speedily and efficiently binding myself into a web of lies, mistrust and conditioned responses. I was on edge for two years, always anxious, always fearing what was around the corner. A blind and punishing rage. A wheedling demand for money. A cold, dismissive response.
When I’d finally thrown myself free, as if from a moving car, I stood up and found that I was bruised and battered and scarred—and intensely relieved that the sickening ride was finally over. I was more ready than I realized to reclaim my life, to restore what I’d taken from myself and commit to a new sense of purpose and balance. To embrace my independence, my singlehood, my values.
Since then, I’ve lived with greater joy, self-awareness and freedom than I could ever have imagined.
It’s just as well that myself at 31 didn’t know what was in store for her. She was getting by on autopilot, earning money, forming a codependency, growing out of the novice period of adulthood and beginning to define who she was. My husband was not, and the deep chasm this created between us ultimately and dramatically fractured both our lives, as well as many other relationships. I was about to enter years of heartache, anxiety and pain, years that would define the person I am today.
The last decade taught me to trust and value myself first. Before I can honor anyone else, I need to honor and respect myself, with a clear understanding of my own values and intentions. Before I can give my trust to anyone else, I need to trust me—my truth, my story, my boundaries, my gut.
It taught me not to suppress emotion, but to accept how I feel, study it and let it go. To never place a higher value on the opinion or approval of someone else than I do on my own self-respect and self-awareness. To be conscious in my interactions with others, to be intentional, to be honest with myself.
I continue to work on all of that, of course, but it’s really empowering and inspiring to acknowledge what I’ve learned and how it’s impacted my life.
I also take a moment to wonder: if I’m lucky enough to have the chance, how will I look back 10 years from now? How will I view myself at 41, how will I have grown, what will I see that I can’t see in the present?
It’s impossible to know, but even just asking the question provides even greater perspective on where I am. Because as happy as I am, and as much as I believe I honor myself, I probably thought the same a decade ago—just measuring by a different scale.
Whatever the future holds, I can only bring the best of what I’ve learned to each day and be open to learning each new lesson as it comes, honoring every step and stumble along the way.