The end of the year always makes me reflective, as you can probably tell from my last few posts. Today the subject came up on a podcast: what truths did you learn the hard way? Which made me think about that issue for myself. I’ve learned most things the hard way. I think that’s just part of life for nearly everyone, and these five things are probably not revelatory to most people, but they were to me. Some of them are recent, some of them are lessons I keep being taught over and over.
So here they are, Five Lessons I Learned the Hard Way.
1. Most Relationships are Situational
This was a tough one, fam, and I keep learning it over and over. While there are people who are in our lives for the long haul, most of our relationships are products of the situations in which we find ourselves. Most people learn this in their 20’s, when they lose track of the people they once felt so close to in high school. I’ve had several people I worked with, who became what I thought were my best friends. And it’s not that they weren’t. The relationships were real, and close, but in almost every case, once I left that job, those people and I slowly drifted out of each other’s lives. We were no longer in daily contact, and also as our circumstances changed, we changed as people. No one did anything wrong here. This is regretful, yes, but it’s natural, and there’s nothing wrong with you or with your friends if this keeps happening to you. I’ve had several ‘ride or die besties’ that I am no longer in any kind of contact with. And it sucks. It hurts. But it’s just reality. Most of our relationships, no matter how deep they may feel at the time, are maintained as a matter of our circumstances. It’s possible that they might become forever friendships, but that takes some very hard work, and usually doesn’t happen, despite all parties’ best intentions.
I was very close to the people I grew up with, especially my aunts and uncles and cousins. I am in close contact with very few of those people now. We exchange texts a couple of times a year if that. I still love them, but we are not close. Most of that is because I moved across the country. Some of it is because I came out of the closet and that was a bridge too far for several of them (their loss). The path behind me is littered with people I thought I’d be close to forever. But it didn’t turn out to be true. And you know what? That’s okay.
There are people who I’ve stayed close to. My best friend from high school, Jennie, and I have lost contact for a while at times, but we maintain close contact today because it was important to both of us. We share the details of our lives, and our struggles, and we’re there for each other, even though we live 2000 miles apart. She was the first person I came out to, in 2019.
Social media has complicated this, a little, and fooled people into thinking they’re still close when they really aren’t. Once you leave a situation, you probably still follow all of those friends on social media. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a way to stay in contact. Social media relationships are real relationships, but they are not the same thing as day-to-day friendships. People you only interact with on social media are not in the trenches with you, sharing in your daily struggles. A lot of people give up on maintaining friendships, thinking they’re ok because they interact with hundreds of people on social media. And it’s not the same thing. Especially the way things work these days, with platforms mainly showing you ads instead of the people you are following. You might go weeks without seeing posts from a friend and not even realize it.
This makes real friendships precious, and worth maintaining. I recently left a job where I’d met my current bff, whom I used to work three shifts a week with. But we are maintaining our connection by hanging out weekly, and still playing D&D together. I’m not losing track of him, nor he of me. He’s going to be the best man in my wedding. Both of us are making an effort, and I am very grateful for that.
So, most relationships are situational. There’s a cycle to friendships, and even family relationships. That is not a bad thing. If you remain open, as you enter new situations you will make new friends, not to replace the old ones, but to help fill the void.
2. If You Stand on a Hill, People Will Throw Rocks at You.
This is a lesson that I learned this week, when I had my first experience of a social media post going somewhat viral (a very loose definition of viral, anyway). I posted a take I knew some people would find somewhat controversial, but I didn’t couch it in absolute terms, and I stand by what I said. A lot of people agreed with me. But more people than I expected showed up to tell me what a horrible person I was, an obvious corporate shill, and many questioned both my intelligence (fair) and my parentage (rude).
Now, my neurodivergence comes with a side order of Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, which makes even the slightest bit of criticism feel like I’m taking a dagger to the heart. I had a lot of big feelings, seeing all of this. I had the impulse to delete the post and block all of the negative commenters. What I soon realized, though, was that most of the angry rude people were responding to their own issues, not anything I’d actually said. They’d taken my fairly innocuous statement, and filled in a lot of space around it, putting words in my mouth. Their reaction was more about them than it was about me. Reading comprehension is not great with the online crowd sometimes. So, as painful as it felt at first to see these comments, it was very good for me to go through this. It was kind of like exposure therapy for RSD.
But I’m not just talking about social media. Any time you put yourself out there, whether it’s releasing creative work or taking a leadership position or even just walking down the street feeling confident, people will show up to tear you down. It’s just human nature. If you publish a book, someone is going to 1-star it. You cannot do your work well enough to avoid this. If you sing the national anthem at a football game, some people are going to critique how you sounded. It’s the nature of the beast. The first search result on google for popular books is probably a post stating ‘Why does [Name of Book] suck so bad!’ It’s a badge of honor, because you’re in the arena, taking swings, not sitting on the sideline yelling insults at the people actually fighting.
You can deal with this in various ways. You can engage with the haters, and try to change their minds, but the risk is high that you will come off looking like an asshole who can’t take criticism. That way lies madness, so tread carefully. The best strategy is probably just to let people have their reactions and not to respond to them. (Unless people are spreading vicious harmful untruths about the work or threatening you, and even in that case you probably shouldn’t engage personally).
So, getting criticism is just proof that you are working. Take your licks gracefully and scream into a pillow later. Rick Rubin says, of creative work, ‘If Everyone Likes it, you’re not pushing far enough.’
3. You are not your work, but your work won’t happen without you.
I’m not talking about your day job here, unless you also consider it your life’s work, and if that’s true, I’m happy for you. But even work that we are personally invested in cannot be our entire identity. You cannot define your worth as a person based on how successful you are at it. You are a valid person if you don’t do anything besides eat your breakfast and read a book on any given day. I myself struggle with this. I defined myself almost exclusively by my productivity for a couple of years, which led to a pretty major breakdown in November of 2022. These days, I feel good about my productivity, but I don’t put pressure on myself about it. I schedule my time in ways that provide my personal needs as well as my professional needs. Two hours of writing, yes, but also a couple of hours to read and/or catch up on TV shows with my fiancé. A daily hike. This is a harder task for some people than others.
That said, your work is still important, so it’s okay to feel good about doing it, and make it a priority. You do have to schedule some time for it, eventually. Just realize that nothing is worth burning yourself out for. This is where my weekly schedule has saved me. I know when my work hours are and how much I can expect to accomplish during that time. So, I don’t get frustrated doing other things when it’s time for them. Also, I purposefully do not over-schedule myself, so I can get sleep and rest and just hanging out time.
I guess what I’m saying is set these goals for yourself in a way that works for you, and don’t compare yourself to what other people are doing. That can be instructive sometimes, and give you ideas, but they don’t have your life. If you can only write 500 words a couple of times a week, that’s fine. There are professional writers who work at that pace. Don’t try to keep up with someone who has a different set of circumstances. I can be highly productive because I don’t have kids at home or a day job, and I have a partner who is an equal participant in taking care of our dogs and home. If you don’t have that, you’re not a failure for not meeting some arbitrary goal.
You are not your work, but your work is important. Both things can be true. It is a matter of balance, as many things are.
4. Your Needs are Valid, but it is not anyone else’s job to meet them
This is a tough one. And phrased this way, it also kind of sounds mean? But I don’t mean it that way. What it means is that you have some basic needs as a person. We all do. Some of them are shared between us, and some of us are individual to ourselves. Needs are value-neutral. If you need more time and attention from other people, there’s nothing wrong with you. If you are a person who needs a lot of alone time, that’s fine. You’re not a bad person for needing your solitude. It is everyone’s job to unpack what their personal needs are and find healthy ways to make sure they are met.
That said, it is no one else’s job to meet your needs. Not your partner’s, not your parents’ (beyond the responsibility of providing basic physical and emotional necessities for dependent children). The people in your life can help you, but you’re responsible for getting your needs met. If you need affection from your partner, you can ask for that and meet that need in healthy ways. Brianna Weist says that other people can’t meet our needs anyway. We meet them ourselves. Finding someone to love us just gives us permission to love ourselves, and that is how that need is met. I’m not sure that is true, exactly, but it’s something to think about.
One of my most annoying habits is a constant need for validation. It’s like I’m still that 8-year-old who had an idea everyone was ignoring. This means I’m constantly asking for approval from my partner and other people, sharing ideas, and work, and projects, and wanting to be validated. Also, shitposting on social media (is there a Shitposter’s Anonymous? I think I may need to go to a meeting). Sometimes this works, but sometimes it doesn’t. But what I’ve realized, through a lot of reflection and a lot of therapy, is that this is a need I am capable of meeting myself. It’s healthier, even. I can reason things through and tell myself I’m doing a good job, or that I wrote an effective piece, or said something clever. I do not need validation from others. I’m not a parked car.
That’s not to say I shouldn’t seek out feedback, but that is a different thing.
So, yeah, other people can help you, but you are responsible for meeting your own needs. This sounds harsh, but it is true.
5. There is no destination. It’s journeys all the way down.
This one. Wow. I’ve had the thought, in different stages of my life, that ‘When I finally [insert thing here] everything will finally be okay. For a while it was ‘when I can write full time,’ then, ‘when I finally publish a book.’ It’s also been at various times, ‘When I can get out of this marriage,’ and ‘when I can finally come out of the closet,’ then ‘when I finally am in a relationship.’ Right now, it’s ‘when we get this house purchased,’ and ‘when I am done with school,’ and ‘when we get married.’ It’s never ending. There’s always something we’re waiting for, something that will make everything right. But it doesn’t work. At every stage, there’s a new set of challenges. That doesn’t mean things don’t get better, and that some stages aren’t more comfortable than others, but there’s no real place of ‘I made it!’
Every goal achieved launches you on a new journey, with its own set of obstacles. Finding a relationship means you have to do the work of maintaining it. Getting your dream job means finding ways to be successful in that role. Publishing a book means having to market it so people will find it (and writing the next one). There is no end point beyond which everything feels like it’s going to be perfect.
You can find safety and comfort and success. But those things are not an end result, they are a byproduct of your journey. You must always do the work on maintaining them. If you’re thinking, ‘when I finally get there,” I have some news for you. There’s no There. When you meet your current goals, you might feel okay for a day or so, then a new set of challenges will present themselves and you’ll be, once more, at the beginning of a long upward path. This is okay. This is how it’s supposed to work. This is how we keep changing and growing until we reach the end of our lives, and who knows what kind of a journey death is. Maybe this will just keep going for eternity. I kind of hope it does.
And that’s five things I learned the hard way. Some of this might seem obvious to you, but I wanted to share in case you yourself are still struggling with some of them. I find a lot of hope in these realizations. Everything is a process, and there are always good things around the corner.