For the first 16 to 20 years of our lives, many of us go through the same challenges when we attempt to define who we are as individuals, what is expected of ourselves in society and how our experiences reflect upon the people in our lives and the world in general. Family and friends usually have a lasting impression on us from the very beginning, providing insight into what it is to be human. In the beginning, choices are made for us.
I grew up in the same home for the first 23 years of my life. My parents were raised Roman Catholic, so I was Roman Catholic. I went to private Catholic school until it became too expensive to attend. Why not public school from the very beginning? Because my parents never went to public school. The neighborhood was very blue-collar meaning there were many people working hard jobs that required intense labor. The mentality was very simple-minded thus my thinking became the same, and the expectations of my life going forward mirrored what other kids my pocket of town had for themselves. I was confident that I could be a success at anything, because I thrived in my own little comfortable square of Simpletown, USA. I really didn’t know the world at all, and yet I was about to go out into it after graduating from high school.
After generating mediocre academic results in high school (Remember, I thrived in my mind during my time at home), I had to go to community college first before going for a four-year degree. Since my parents never went to college, this was the first life experience that was truly my idea and foreign to many of my friends back in the neighborhood. And it turned out to be a terrible experience because I wasn’t prepared at all for the responsibilities of college. My confidence was shattered, and I felt like I was always destined to fail when attempting to do new things on my own. I licked my wounds for some time. Instead of trying college again, I worked one or two jobs at a time, working in four different places over the span of 11 months.
One random day when working in the warehouse at a retail job, I had the most vivid epiphany of my life. I can still see the roof above the back aisle of that warehouse if I close my eyes. I simply said to myself, “Hey, try school again. You failed at school because you jumped into the experience blind. Now, see what you have to do to make it work.” So I decided to try school again. This time, my approach would be different based on the results of my previous failures.
During the time I was planning my return to school, I became very aware that my self-esteem could be tested in a negative way every time I had a setback involving an experience that was outside of the comfort zone that was set up for me during my first 19 years of life. Instead of being afraid of the potential setbacks, I embraced them. And once I embraced them, my world expanded beyond the scope of my previous 19 years.
This approach went beyond school. When something occurred that sucked the confidence out of me, I would ask myself questions like, “Was this your fault? If so, how to you keep this from happening again? If another person hurt you, can the relationship be mended? Can we co-exist?” The assessments I made over the years were done to help me understand the situations I found myself in, not to dwell on them.
After taking this proactive outlook involving my ever-changing self-esteem, my independence flourished. Despite many setbacks, I accomplished many things that my high school self would have never envisioned. While working and going to school, I moved out on my own at 23 and never returned to live at home. I continued working and going to school, earning my four-year degree at 28. I met a girl that grew up about 20 miles from me and we moved in together. When she expressed the desire to pursue her doctorate, I decided to move away with her to help out with the expenses (And of course because I loved her. Duh.).
I was very lucky to secure a job near her school while she was attending. It was a rural area, so I have to admit I was worried about what I was going to do for income. I left that job when we returned home two years later when her classroom portion of her work was complete. When we came back, her job prospects were rising, and mine took some time to find traction.
It was 2008, and an economic recession hit the job market hard in the U.S. I took whatever job that I could get just to pay the bills. What happened over the next two years was a job odyssey that I would not wish on anyone. Five jobs in two years. As I moved from one position to the next, my self-esteem would fall lower and lower. Doubt crept into my life again, and it was the same emotions that I felt all those years ago when I dropped out of college. Only this time, I wasn’t living with Mom and Dad. My girlfriend was now my wife, and we had thousands of dollars of school loans to pay and many other monetary responsibilities. No matter how much I struggled, I still reflected on my past experiences to find answers to my worries.
In 2010, I found work at a place with good working hours, modest pay and good benefits. It was a very stable job and I was fine with it despite the usual drama from co-workers (Whatever, I remembered high school. We all deal with this at work). Since I landed this job, we bought a house, got two cats, had a son and our finances stabilized. Well, stabilized as much as we can with school debt. So, happy ending, right?
I was let go from said job in 2015. All the emotions of self-doubt, depression, worry, anger and frustration started to settle into my brain again. Even at 40, even when I overcame so many obstacles before to attain some level of success and stability, I felt like I accomplished nothing.
The stakes are much higher for me now than when I was a silly high school kid, one that I don’t even recognize anymore. But, I will ask the same questions of myself that I did over twenty years ago, and searching for answers so I can learn from the experience . As always, I am ready for the challenge.