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30 Things I Learned About Myself, Love, and Life Before Turning 30

1. Nothing that is external will fix or heal your internal wounds.
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Every year as the leaves turn golden, I find myself reflecting on memories from the numerical age I’m about to bid farewell to, and anticipating what the next year will hold. This year, as I got closer to the "big 3-0," I found myself not only thinking about the past year, but also about how much I’ve gone through in my three decades of life. So many people say that their 30s were the best decade of their lives, and I truly believe that it’s because we’re able to finally reap the benefits of the challenges and evolutions most of us endure in our twenties.

This September, I was in Seattle to see my boyfriend’s family and get some respite from city/pandemic living by safely soaking up lots of nature as a birthday gift to myself. As we were driving out to Snoqualmie for a hike I wanted to do on my birthday, I was filled with gratitude for this person I fought to become as I entered my 30th year. I wanted to commemorate this chapter, and out came a self-addressed letter of 30 lessons I've learned. After sharing it to my Instagram, Leslie asked if I wanted to write a longer version here, and I loved the idea of being able to expand on these lessons in a way that Instagram caption length limits wouldn’t allow, so here we go! Here are 30 things I learned* about myself, love, and life before turning 30:

*These are lessons I learned about myself and my own life, so they may not necessarily be the same for you. When I say "you," I'm speaking to myself!

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The chase of work success, being loved, popularity, and skills are not inherently bad; but when you’re chasing them to fill the gaps of existing wounds within yourself, the feeling of fullness derived from acquisition of those things dissolves very quickly. I chased being the best at whatever I did, including achieving the “perfect body” and being liked by everyone, but none of those outside achievements made a lasting impact on my internal self. On that note, no one needs "fixing" or is "broken," and there is no glory in identifying yourself that way. Being human is innately imperfect. We all have our own mountains to climb and bruises to let heal.

There are so many wonderful things you can do to supplement and support your well-being nowadays, but there is no nutritional plan, workout, or superfood that can replace or have the same effectiveness as consistent, quality sleep and adequate stress management for your overall well-being. Having a chronic illness (autoimmune disease) only reinforced how true this is. I’d be knocking it out of the park with my nutrition and workouts, but if I wasn’t prioritizing my sleep and managing my stress, my symptoms would very much remind me of what was important.

I was born and raised as a people pleaser. Being a child of immigrants and a competitive elite athlete, I thrived off the validation of being liked, adhering to what was expected of me, and accepted. The more I ran in the direction of becoming the person everyone wanted me to be, the more I realized that I was running further from understanding and honoring the person I wanted to be: a person that embraces exploring the uncharted path for what she feels is right.

I used to think that my sensitive nature made me weak and vulnerable, but I’ve since learned that it is one of my superpowers that has only made me better as a friend, partner, colleague, and overall human.

Through my multiple serious injuries, an eating disorder, and health conditions, I learned to cherish the very basics of my able body—the ability to walk without pain, to enjoy good food, and to do physical activities I love. I try not to take those abilities for granted.

The times I find my ego surging or feeling like I’ve mastered all my lessons I need to be learning are the very warning signs that my insecurities are overcompensating and I’m no longer open to learning and growing. If you find yourself thinking you are the best at anything, you need to find new circles to be in and a solid reality check.

My friends all know the living hell that was my 2016. I watched my father slowly lose his battle with cancer, I was just coming out of a toxic long-distance relationship, and my autoimmune disease was a hot mess. I still remember how some days felt utterly suffocating, constantly consumed by both emotional and physical pain. The thought that helped me get through each day was reminding myself, “I’m still here. I’m surviving and life is continuing on.”

A lot of my self-worth used to be tied up in my achievements and successes in my life. It was great when I was leapfrogging from the high of one achievement to the next, but the minute that I misstepped and failed to land, I found myself freefalling into an abyss of feeling worthless. Embodying your failures and successes as part of your identity is essentially placing your self-worth at the mercy of factors that will inevitably vary throughout life, so it’s important to find an internal foundation instead.

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If your given family chooses not to show you true love, you are not obligated to remain attached to them, for the sole reason of blood and DNA. After my father passed away, our family fractured from some deceptively harmful choices made by some of my older siblings, that showed that their priorities were not in line with what it means to be family. I’ve since chosen to not have them in my life, as the only thing they contributed to it was pain without love.

Just like some plants thrive off sunlight and others prefer darkness and more water, we all have various needs when it comes to love. We all have different ways of showing love and different ways we feel loved. I grew up in a household where we showed our love through “acts of service,” such as taking care of tasks to ease each other’s load. That continues to be a way that I feel loved and cared for, but my boyfriend, Justin, feels most loved when I support him with verbal affirmations and quality time.

I don’t know who came up with the arbitrary rules around love and dating, but we as a society sure do love to use them to judge each other's relationships (“They’re moving too fast! Why hasn’t he put a ring on it yet? They aren’t very affectionate, they must be unhappy!”). For years, I sought out a love that looked a certain way and that felt the way I was told love felt, but this only convoluted my learning what I needed and wanted in a relationship. In my relationship now, we are on a timeline that is dictated by our own evolution and desires as a couple—not defined by benchmarks created by society.

About a week after our first date, my boyfriend, Justin, told me point blank that he deleted his dating app we met on (oh hey, Hinge!). My initial societally-conditioned reaction was, “something has to be wrong with this dude,” because of the absence of game-playing and waiting to text back kind of nonsense. I’m so glad I trusted my instincts and just appreciated his willingness to not play games, because games truly do nothing but taint potential intimacy between humans.

When it comes to family and long-time partners or friends, it’s easy to assume they understand us and our intentions so well, but it can lead us to being a little lazy with our expressions of care and gratitude for each other. Thanking your partner for doing the dishes, even though they always do, texting a friend to let them know you’re thinking of them—I’ve learned that a little goes a very long way.

The amount of time I spent trying to be desirable and loveable makes me a little sad for younger me. Everyone intrinsically deserves to be loved; no qualifications necessary.

Don't make them out to be and don't hold them to that impossible standard. Treat others’ wounds kindly but don't bear the load as your own.

The love that you have for yourself is a foundational kind of love. Other love in your life for and by others can be the best sprinkles and hot fudge in the world, but you have to scoop that foundational ice cream for yourself to put it on. Remember: You are the one person that you will wake up to every morning for the rest of your life.

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Ever since I was a child, I was always riddled with anxiety about making the “right” decisions and how they’d impact the future (I was a 5-year-old going on 30). Bringing lots of tears and “what ifs” with me, I’d crawl into my mom’s bed, and she would always remind me of this advice: When I’d inevitably wail about what would happen if I made the wrong decision, she’d reply with a simple, “So what? Then you’ll figure it out from there.

Cancer is unfair and exhausting. But the bittersweet attribute that it sometimes has, that tragic accidents and sudden goodbyes do not, is a little extra time. I had seen enough people regret not spending enough time with their loved ones, so when it came time that my father’s liver cancer finally became terminal, I made every effort to see him as much as possible and be there in the remaining time we had. I couldn’t tell you what social engagements or work I missed by being with him, but I remember every doctor’s appointment and lunch together we had instead. For that, I am so grateful.

We live in “coolness” culture; one that emphasizes nonchalance by not texting first, not expressing how we truly feel, and strength being associated with being unaffected. I was made fun of as a kid for how affected I would be by hurtful words disguised as jokes and how emotional I got over things like sad movies and sunsets. As a result, I learned to crush my inherently sensitive nature, and play it cool. The thing is? Coolness is the antidote to feeling the great things in life that come from experiencing the full spectrum of emotions—which brings me to...

You can’t feel the ocean without getting wet. Emotions come as a package deal, and the more you push away the negative feelings, the less you’re able to feel the positive ones.

Run away from it, and you create dissonance and a fractured state of being. Face it, and you learn to live wholly human. My eating disorder was born out of a lot of things, but much of it had to do with my deeper insecurities and need for control. I ran away from those truths and toward my eating disorder, hoping it would disappear the further I ran from it; but the shadow of the truth only loomed larger the further away I ran.

Nothing in life lasts. Pain abates and happiness subsides. Realizing the impermanence of the highs and lows of human existence not only helps you really squeeze all the goodness out of the happy moments, but also helps you tolerate the tough patches.

I’ve experienced quite a few “flashy” moments in my life—the kind of stuff that looks amazing on paper and signifies a sense of having arrived. You’d think that those would be some of my most memorable moments of my life, but they don’t hold a candle to taking my mom on a lunch date, seeing our puppy snuggle up to Justin, or dinners with friends. Thinking about this makes it easier to know where to dedicate my time and energy.

Doing the right thing is usually not the easy path, and it often requires patience, pragmatism, willingness to be judged and questioned, and sacrifice for the greater good. This adage has gotten me through so many challenging moments in my life when I’ve had to come to terms with facing a lot of discomfort for a better future outcome. Difficult decisions that impact others, fighting as an advocate for unpopular opinions, tough goals you set for yourself, painful goodbyes to things or people no longer right for you; as long as those things are what feels right in your soul, the challenge is always worth it.

Fun fact: this phrase is actually from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 concession speech. The moment she uttered those words, it felt like she summarized who I was in a succinct phrase; so, it became a part of my first ever tattoo!

P.S. Here are 30 things Kelly learned and did before turning 30, and Emily's series on turning 30!

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