Life lessons I learned in 2021

Y’all, I can’t believe it is the last day of the year! 2021 felt like it went by slow but fast at the same time. We all thought this year would be better but it seems that it was just the sequel to 2020. We’re still in this pandemic – two years at this point. But just like 2020, I think 2021 was another year of learning and reflection. In 2021, I began my year of boundlessness, went back to therapy, started grad school, and committed to prioritizing my physical, mental, and spiritual health.

For many people, the end of the year presents a moment to reflect on the past year and reminisce about wins, special moments, challenges, and losses. I’ve been thinking about what lessons I’ve learned this year the past few days, which inspired this post. Professor 2021, as I like to call her, definitely schooled me as much as professor 2020 did.

So to say farewell to professor 2021, here are 12 lessons (in no particular order) that this year has taught me. Maybe you’ll resonate with some of these lessons. Take a read-through and see if there are any similarities or differences for you! This is what 2021 taught me:

  1. The best way to achieve goals is through small steps and tiny changes

I tend to be a “go big or go home” person. I love crossing off things off of my to-do list. I’m very goal-oriented and driven by that. However, achieving one’s goals often takes time. Goals are often achieved through small steps rather than big leaps and changes. It makes the process more sustainable because you then build habits. That’s why most people don’t stick to their new year’s resolutions for long. We’re trying to make big changes at once instead of trying to make small changes and take small steps to achieve our bigger goals. As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

  1. Connection with others and community care is vital

The pandemic continues to show us how much we need others. Western culture, specifically American culture, teaches individuality above all else. But we humans are social creatures. Human survival has not been in isolation but in community with others. Community care is about small or big actions we take to care for others and vice versa. Its foundation is the idea of togetherness, seen in many collectivist cultures. Community care is the type of care we need right now in addition to self-care. Community care is about taking care and looking out for each other. In this time where many people feel alone, community care combats that.

  1. Self-growth and self-love happen in relationships as much as it happens in solitude
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I often thought that I needed to be on my own in order to have self-growth and self-love. People often say that they need to be single or on their own to focus on themselves. Since I married young, I felt that I missed that time to focus on myself and that I never had the space to explore who I am on my own.

This year, I learned that I can work on myself while in a relationship. Self-growth and self-love don’t have to be in isolation. In relationships, you are faced with another person who becomes like a mirror. They can show you the parts that need improvement but can also challenge the “unlovable” version of yourself that you believe to be true. Relationships show you a lot about yourself that being on your own or in isolation won’t. Psychotherapist and relationship expert Esther Perel states that “it’s by being with others that you get to know who you are”. Self-growth and self-love happen in a mixture of solitude and in relationships.

  1. Relationships (of all forms) takes hard work

When I say relationships, I mean all forms, whether it be romantic, platonic, familial, etc. This year, I’ve learned a lot about friendships and romantic relationships. I learned the importance of friendships and support systems outside of a partner. No one person can provide everything for you and that’s okay. As psychotherapist and relationship expert Esther Perel states, “a person cannot provide what a village once provided for an individual”. Even though I knew the importance of having that village, I didn’t realize how it takes effort to cultivate and maintain those relationships in said village. Having limited ways of socializing and dealing with my own mental health challenges showed me that I need to be intentional in all of my relationships.

  1. Be the student of your partner
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In couple’s therapy this year, I learned about the concept of being the student of your partner. As individuals, we all have our own love maps, which are described by relationship expert John Gottman as our inner psychological worlds. Our general interests, preferences, attitudes, behaviors, and life experiences would be considered to be part of our inner psychological worlds. These things shape how we each seek connection and what our needs are.

My partner and I for a while felt that we were often misunderstood by the other. We realized in couple’s therapy that we were behaving in the ways we wanted to be treated instead of how the other wanted to be treated in the relationship. But in a relationship, you have to learn how to love someone the way they want to be loved and treated. Being the student of your partner allows you to stay curious and realize that there’s always more to learn about them. In order to be the best partner that we can be, we have to ask questions, stay curious, and make an effort to understand them as a whole person.

  1. Healing isn’t easy or linear

Getting back to therapy this year showed me how healing isn’t easy or linear. It’s a process that can go all over the place in ways one might not expect. In the book, My Grandmother’s Hands, the author Resmaa Menakem talks about the process of healing. It’s not always a straight path nor does it follow the same timeline for everyone. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, which is normal. There are times after therapy where I feel down days after a session. Other times, I feel at peace. Unpacking things that haven’t been addressed for years will stir things inside of you – things that you may or may not expect. Therapy brought up things I thought I had healed from. Therapy also showed me things that I need to unlearn and heal from that I didn’t even realize.

  1. The role of intergenerational trauma in our lives

This year I learned about the concept of intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma (also known as generational or transgenerational trauma) is understood as unhealed trauma that is passed socially and biologically from person to person and generation to generation. Intergenerational trauma can affect all of us, no matter how we identify.

Unpacking things from my childhood in therapy showed me how intergenerational trauma was at play in some of my struggles as a child of immigrants. Struggles that were not only my own but that was passed down generations. Sometimes behaviors that may have been helpful at the time of dealing with historical traumatic events (like hypervigilance) become harmful in the here and now. Those behaviors can sometimes be seen as cultural though. This is often how trauma becomes conflated with culture. As Resmaa Menakem states eloquently, “trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma in a people looks like culture”

  1. I can define womanhood (and who I am as a person) for me
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This year has taught me that I can define the person I want to be and that I don’t need to leave that in the hands of anyone. In a previous blog post, I explored my experience of challenging my need to fulfill everyone else’s expectations of who I should be. Through my journey of self-definition and self-valuation, I took back my agency over my journey of womanhood. I realized that I get to have a multi-dimensional view and experience of personhood that goes beyond the stereotypical narratives that have been fed to me for most of my life. This year allowed me the time and space to really think about who I am and who I want to be in this world. I realized that I didn’t need permission to define who I am and who I aspire to be.

  1. Expecting myself to be perfect is to deny my humanity
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This has become one of my daily affirmations in 2021! I struggle with perfectionism. I have this need to be perfect because early on in my life, I learned that anything less than perfection wasn’t okay. However, making mistakes is part of the human experience. Therapy showed me that expecting perfection is to deny my own humanity. Although I’m still not comfortable with making or admitting mistakes, I know that making mistakes is inherently human. I can be imperfectly me.

  1. The basics (sleep, eating right, and exercise) should always be prioritized
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“I am not my best if I do not rest” has also become one of my daily affirmations. My life coach constantly reminds me to prioritize the basics (sleep, eating right, and exercise), which are all aspects of self-care. She reminds me that you can’t focus on the bigger things if these aren’t prioritized. This lesson was also emphasized in my social work program. The program made sure that one of the first things we learned is the importance of self-care.

As practitioners, it’s unethical to not care for ourselves first because then we are not showing up as our best selves for our clients. Cultivating self-care practices makes us better students, practitioners, and humans overall. I think this applies to life in general. When you are not at your best, it’s hard to show up for others in your life. I don’t know about you, but I am not the most loving or caring person when I’m sleep-deprived, hangry, or feeling unhealthy. When we prioritize caring for ourselves, we not only make our lives better but we also make the lives of those around us better. A healthy you can only make your relationships better, just saying!

  1. Alone time is important
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The pandemic had some people isolated by themselves. For others, they were stuck with their partner, family members, or roommates. Even though some people found themselves having more time to spend with loved ones living on the same roof, they were also at their wits end after a while. I was one of those people.

I was not used to 24/7 togetherness with my partner. Sheltering in place had me feeling suffocated and needing more alone time, which became a challenge living in a small apartment. My partner and I both felt the itching need for alone time months in the pandemic, which is healthy. Psychotherapist Dana Dorfman from VeryWellMind describes this need well: “while humans are social creatures who rely on relationships and connection for emotional survival, we also need time alone to think, nourish, and care for ourselves. That’s what replenishes our individuality.” We need separation from each other as much as we need togetherness.

  1. The importance of doing things just for fun

This year showed me just how important it is to cultivate joy in our lives. One of the ways to do so is doing things just for fun! We’re allowed to play and have fun as adults. It isn’t just for children but for all of us. Our cousins in the wild know what’s up! As adults, it may sometimes feel like life is just about working and endless responsibilities. But we can’t limit ourselves to that type of thinking. Play and fun are part of the human experience.

I know that when I’m engaged in activities that are fun, I forget my troubles and the state of the world just for a while. Engaging in hobbies or fun activities you enjoy can get your mind off of your troubles, foster creativity, improve your mental health, and reduce stress. 2021 reminded me that scheduling fun and play in our lives benefits our overall well-being.

Well, there you go! Professor 2021 definitely schooled me this year. These are the 12 lessons I learned that I’ll take with me into the New Year. I hope 2022 brings new opportunities, healing, confidence, a continued focus on what’s important, and hopefully the end to the pandemic (a girl can hope!). Either way, I’ll be strutting into 2022 like:

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What lessons did you learn in 2021 that you’ll be taking into 2022? Let me know in the comments below! Wishing y’all a happy new year!

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