10 Life Lessons My Twenties Smashed Into Me

It’s official: today is my birthday. I’m no longer in my twenties, and I’ve never been happier.

I never used to be happy, though. I used to think I was broken. I used to wake up and wonder how I’d get through the day, or if today should finally be the day to kill myself.

 

That dude on the far right? Yeah, that was me.

 

But over the past seven years, I’ve worked hard on myself and my life, carving and shaping it into exactly what I want it to be.

I’ve come from the edge — fifteen years of chronic depression, growing up with an alcoholic mother, three years in an abusive relationship, several years of anorexia, followed by binge eating — to living a life I’m truly proud of, and excited to wake up every day for.

I’ve climbed up cliff faces in multiple continents, completely alone, without ropes. I’ve been a strength athlete for seven years. I’ve got a Ph.D. in Mathematics. I create cool art. I write, I give public talks. I have amazing friends.

And, yes, I still have bad days, but I have never been happier or more proud of myself, and that’s because of all the work I put in throughout my twenties.

I started NoCtrlZ with an aim not just to help you stop binge eating, but to help you thrive, in all parts of your life.

That’s why today I’m sharing with you some of the lessons I learnt over the last decade.

I hope you find something insightful that you can apply to your own life.

 

 

All your problems are internal

The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” – John Milton

I’ve been in abusive relationships, but none more so than with myself.

I used to hate myself. I’d blame myself for everything. I’d ask myself questions like:

  • Why am I such an idiot?
  • Why am I always depressed?
  • Why am I never good enough?
  • How can it possibly be OK that I’m here, when other people don’t even have clean water to drink?

The fact is, these are shitty questions. If you ask “Why can’t I do this?” then your brain will automatically say, “because you’re an idiot”.

But if you ask “What can I learn from this?”, then your brain will focus on trying to find creative solutions to your problems.

If you want to change your happiness, your self-belief, your confidence and — by corollary — your life, you have to change your mindset.

You have to direct your focus towards things that are helpful.

You have to realise that your thoughts are not necessarily the truth (but more like opinions, old beliefs, and habitual responses).

You can work on this stuff, just like you can work on your body in the gym. You can interrupt the pattern of old, unhelpful thoughts, and you can create a new narrative for yourself.

The first step to any change is awareness.

Once you gain awareness of the automatic, habitual noise that’s in your head, you gain control. You begin to realise that your thoughts and feelings aren’t permanent. And then you get to choose what to believe, and how to act in any situation.

Here’s an example of how that might work for you:

Step 1: Become aware of the thoughts and stories you’re telling yourself. Write down whatever you’re thinking (either at a certain time of day every day, or when you feel in a rut).

Step 2: Become curious about the thought, or label it for what it is.

For example, “I’m a failure.” becomes “I’m having the thought that I’m a failure.

Doing this creates a little bit of distance from it, so it’s not all-encompassing, so you can look at it with more clarity.

Step 3: Ask yourself: Is this thought helpful? Is this thought going to get me through this situation?

Step 4: If it’s not helpful, then tell yourself, “I hear this thought, but right now I’m going to let it go. Every time it comes up, I’m going to let it go, and focus on something else that’s going to help me move forwards.

Do this enough, and you will have trained your mind to naturally ask better questions, to naturally become the supportive, encouraging environment that everyone should live in.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

I believe this is true, not just of other people, but also of yourself.

 

You only get one body

As long as you are breathing there’s more right with you than wrong with you” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Your body is a miracle.

Think about it. Your eyelids blink every four seconds to keep your eyes safe, and clean. Your heart is so strong it moves 2,000 gallons of blood per day. You breathe 1,000 breaths an hour. And you digest just about everything you’ve ever thrown inside it.

And yet what do we focus on? The things we dislike. The things we’ve “failed” at.

Your body tells a story. The cuts, the scrapes, the scars — they are all part of your story. It’s time to own it, appreciate it, and respect it.

Me? I’ve broken both my arms. I haven’t been able to walk pain-free for a total of two years of my life. I’ve starved my body down to 40kg, and stuffed it to breaking point, over and over.

And I’ve finally realised that I only get one body. There is no point hating it. There is no point comparing it to anyone else’s. None of these things ever helped me to get to where I want to be. None of those things ever made me feel happier, or at peace.

But you know what has helped? Treating my body with respect.

That means:

  • Talking to it like you respect it (instead of saying “I’m so fat”, you can start saying “This is what my body looks like today, on Thursday”).

 

  • Celebrating the ways in which your body can move (rather than torturing it through endless workouts, it’s OK to go gentle sometimes).

 

  • Trying to fuel it (relatively) well, but also recognising that eating isn’t just about fuel — it’s also about celebration and connection with other people in your life. (It’s totally OK to smash a pizza.)

 

  • Giving it adequate rest and recovery (and not hating on it if it can’t perform something your mind thinks it should).

Your existence on this planet is a fucking miracle.

Don’t just listen to me, listen to physicist Neil Degrasse Tyson:

“The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”

Everything else is cultural invention.

 

The world doesn’t give a shit

You’ll stop worrying what others think about you when you realize how seldom they do.” – David Foster Wallace

When I was 26, I sold all my belongings and moved from the UK to California.

I had a Ph.D. in Mathematics, I was a US citizen, and I tried my absolute hardest to go to a tonne of job interviews and get a job in Silicon Valley.

You know what happened?

Nothing.

No one cared.

After completely failing to find employment in the US, I went back the UK (and got a secure job within one week). I then decided to cut my hair really short.

Maria with short hair

This was a huge change for me. I came out of the hairdresser, walked down the street, and guess what happened?

Nothing.

No one cared.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Obviously no one cared — lots of people have short hair, and lots of people go for job interviews in Silicon Valley.

But you have to realise those moments after my Ph.D. were the first time I’d basically felt positive emotion in my entire life. For the first time, I felt excitement. I felt like there was possibility.

So I experimented by taking big action: doing crazy shit in New Zealand, moving to California, then cutting all my hair off.

But I realised two things:

  1. No one is going to stop you from doing anything. You are totally free, and the only person holding you back from anything is yourself.
  2. Everyone is too wrapped up in their own shit to care. Everyone is too busy either trying to convince the world to pay attention to them, or they’re just mindlessly scrolling through Instagram.

This is actually good news! It means you can do loads of stupid shit, and fail, and no one will notice.

It means if someone else seems annoyed, it probably has nothing to do with you.

And it means that you have to offer yourself validation. You have to offer yourself love. Because other people might not be around to do it, or might not even think to tell you.

So you have to become the cheerleader or your life: talking yourself round from the failures, and celebrating your successes, every damn time.

 

The world may not give a shit, but some people do

There might not be angels, but there are people who might as well be.” – David Foster Wallace

Any problem you’re having, many people have not only been there, but they’ve solved it and got through it.

You are not alone, in anything, ever.

There are always people who have achieved what you want to achieve. Don’t try to be a hero and figure this all out on your own. Find mentors. Seek advice. Commit, and work towards change.

When I realised I finally had to overcome a childhood trauma that was ruling my life, I had no idea how to do that. I had to be shown the way.

When I decided to stop living my life depressed, stop binge eating, and turn my life around, I had to find the books, the information, and the people to help me.

Realise that it’s OK to not be OK, and that absolutely no one does anything by themselves.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We’re all in this steaming pile of humanity, together.

 

Every setback will make you stronger (but only if you let it)

The most successful and resilient people in the world know that problems and failures are just opportunities for growth. That — no matter what you go through — there is always something to learn from the experience that will make you even better.

You may not be able to see how your problems are beneficial when you’re inside them. That’s OK. Just trust that they will make you better somehow.

Trust that you will figure it out at some point.

Binge eating and depression allow me to empathise with other people, in a way I just wouldn’t have been able to understand had I not gone through them. I also wouldn’t be the strong, confident, and emotionally stable person I’m proud to be today, because I wouldn’t have taken the time to work on myself, had I not gone through those things.

Did I realise that would happen at the time? No.

Most of the time, I didn’t know what I was going to learn. When I had a chronic leg injury for two years, I even kept on saying (while shaking my fist at the sky) “OK, I’ve learnt my lesson now… you can stop!”

But that fact is there is always room for more growth and less suffering.

The fact is that, no matter what you’re currently feeling, it will pass.

The fact is, whatever you’re going through will make you stronger, and better, but you have to be ready to open your heart, and let it change you.

 

Happiness is the process of becoming your ideal self

I’ll be happy when I get top grades, and go to a good university.
I’ll be happy when I get a first at university, and then do a Ph.D.
I’ll be happy when I can deadlift 100kg, when I can clean and jerk my bodyweight.

Actually, it turns out you can be happy right now.

While it’s great to have goals, I realised that achieving those goals didn’t actually make me that happy. That’s because I never celebrated my achievements. I just immediately looked for the next thing to achieve.

The fact is, there is always more to do, more to strive for, more to be, and more to give.

So if you put all your happiness into achievement, you will never feel like you are achieving enough.

You will never feel like you are enough.

Happiness lies in the middle ground. It’s about figuring out what’s important in your life, and who you ideally want to be. It’s about working towards the goals that will get you there. It’s about celebrating every single one of those achievements (however small), while recognising that you simply will never be your “ideal self” (because there is always more you can do, be, and give).

It’s about appreciating the journey of ups and downs, courageous acts, and setbacks. It’s about being satisfied with yourself — yet remaining hungry for more — simply because you decided this is who you want to be, this is the life you want to lead, and this is how you’re stepping in to it.

Happiness is growth itself.

 

You can’t help everyone

A few years ago, I went to the Sony world photography exhibition in Somerset House, London.

I became in awe of the beauty of nature, people, the world. Then, right at the end, there was an exhibition on female genital mutilation. That was some totally fucked up shit right there, happening right here, in this world, while I’m alive.

I’m a very empathetic person, and in the quiet of that beautiful, busy place, I couldn’t help but put myself in the shoes of those women. It was totally unacceptable.

I walked out of that exhibition reeking of the guilt of my white, British privilege.

My boyfriend at the time just shrugged, you can’t feel guilty for being alive.

I couldn’t understand how he wasn’t affected by those photos, but, you know what? He was right. Feeling that way won’t help them, or me, or anyone.

The fact is, there are too many causes to fight for in the world. Too many injustices.

In the past, I’ve felt overwhelmed with emotion every time I learnt of the extent of some new disgusting truth. I was totally unable to handle it.

I’m getting better at this. I’m still working on these reactions, but I realise now that I can’t help everyone (especially when I feel completely overwhelmed with guilt and anger and sadness).

In cases closer to home, know that people won’t change until they are ready. So while you may know that someone would be so much happier and better off if they just did X, you can’t force them. And nor should you.

We all have to take our own journeys. We all have to find our own way.

 

You have already changed the world, just by existing

While you may think you can’t change the world, know that you are changing it every single day, just by being here, just by existing.

Kat Cole has a brilliant essay on this. She says,

“By doing good for just one person, in just one moment, you can affect the trajectory of many things, of many lives, all over the world. Even if in some situations it’s not easy to be kind, gracious or positive, keep in mind it’s not just that moment that you are affecting, it’s many moments into the future.”

Your effect on others matters. Sometimes it’s even the difference between life and death.

So we can all can learn to be a little kinder, a little more patient. We can smile at strangers, do random acts of kindness, listen harder, and laugh louder.

As Rumi said, “You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in a drop.”

 

Do good shit, better

I believe it’s a moral imperative to help other people.

A couple of years ago, I began to learn how to help others better. I got interested in Effective Altruism, which is about optimising your time, background, experience, and money to make the biggest impact you possibly can (to help other people, animals, or the planet).

It’s about supporting research-backed charities that demonstrably make a difference to causes you believe are truly important in the world.

So while, for some people it makes sense to volunteer their time, for someone else it might make more sense (given their background and experience) to get a high paid finance job and pay for ten volunteers.

Rather than donating to random charities that stop you in the street, or volunteering your time almost at random, I believe we can all do so much more in this world if we use our logic — as well as our emotions — to guide us.

 

Sometimes you have to just fucking believe

When you’ve nothing else, construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.” – Cormac McCarthy

Sometimes you just have to believe you’ll get through the day, even though you have no idea how.

Believe you’ll find the answers, even when your grief burns like a match in your throat.

When your eyes feel like they’ve been rubbed with sandpaper from all the tears you can no longer cry: believe.

Hold onto certainty as the world crumbles beneath your blistered feet.

Know that you’ll find a way out, because you will never give up.

Trust that you are stronger than all of it.

 

 

 

 

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