Illustration by Lola N.

Being a human can be the worst. We’re messy, we’re flawed, and we’re ever-changing works in progress who can’t stop making the same mistakes. We’re emotional, irrational, and passive-aggressive–and more than a few of us have started years-long feuds based on a friend’s response to news we’ve texted them. But yet, despite knowing all of this, we assume that we’re alone in our missteps and compare ourselves to anybody who (seems to) excel where we can’t.

All of this makes us even harder on ourselves despite an important universal truth: no one has it all figured out, and at no point do we stop growing. Obviously it can be next to impossible to remember this in the wake of personal disaster. So, that’s why I’ve prepared this necessary pep talk for the next time you find yourself spinning your traits or your choices (or even your life situation) into a whole lot of negatives.

1. You are the sum of your parts.
Meaning? You’re not defined only by the less flattering ones. Earlier this year in the midst of a particularly difficult time, I sat across from my therapist and began describing myself as “diabolical” and “manipulative” and any other synonym for, well, bad. Which she wasn’t having. She reminded me of the good things about my capacity for overthinking: I could analyze well, problem solve, and act “politically” in social situations I wanted to lash out in but (whether for personal or professional reasons) I couldn’t.

And then she also reminded me that on top of these traits I’d already listed, I was much more.

Rarely is anybody good, bad, or definable by those concrete terms. Who we are is the result of how we grew up, who we grew up with, the lessons we learned and took with us, and the ways we’ve learned to cope. Sure, some of us may use less-than-wonderful ways to self-preserve, but we balance ourselves out in other ways. You can still be flawed and generous and kind and funny and caring. After all, we’re people. Not cardboard cut-outs of heroes and villains, stuck in two-dimensional roles we’ve resigned ourselves to.

2. Self-discovery can be messy and awful.
Few things are as scary as hitting rock bottom and re-aligning who you are (and who you’re going to be). But the thing is, it’s brave to make painful choices and admit that you need to change. Plus, it’s freeing: since change is the only real constant, we know that being alive means being in motion, and that at some point down the road we’ll find ourselves questioning everything all over again.

A lot of us don’t like to talk about this process. (Why would we? Every time I go through it, I end up crying in my car to the second-last song from the Hamilton soundtrack.) It’s easy to think that growth means taking a leap forward in a definitive gameboard direction. But for that leap to make a lasting imprint, it also means having to look back and examine what brought you here. And that’s never easy.

But it’s important! There’s a reason so many of us upload photos of ourselves wearing questionable amounts of pleather on #TBT: it’s interesting to revisit our origin stories. While the past still has the habit of resurrecting moments we wish we could leave behind, the messiness of acknowledgement takes a lot of work and willingness to do it. It takes a strong person to decide to deep dive into their worst (and greatest) hits, so hello: self-discovery is not for the weak.

3. Most people are going through the same thing.
Nobody’s life is perfect. Social media is an illusion and few people are about to dump their metaphorical bags out on the table and dare you to go through it. As I like to remind myself (and anybody I’m screaming at on the internet), most of us are just trying to pick up lunch without incident.

Despite knowing all of this, we keep comparing ourselves to everybody else. So first: stop it. The glimpse we see of other people’s lives offer nothing but a locker door’s equivalent of reality. We don’t know what everyone else is coping with or what they’re trying to undo or what they’re trying to outrun. But we do know that, as people, they’re changing, growing, and learning like we are. And while I’m not about to suggest being friends with anybody for the sake of I’m a person too! camaraderie, I am suggesting we unassign the narratives we’ve assigned to people who aren’t us. We’re not alone in our messiness, and we’re certainly not the only ones desperately trying to sort through it.

4. Nothing is forever (meaning: this feeling won’t last).
I like to remind myself that most of us don’t remember fighting a terrible flu. We remember that we were sick, that it hurt to lay down, and that we thought it would be the end of us. But then it wasn’t. And now, we’re (mostly) unable to recall the specifics of our sickness. Once upon a time it seemed absolute, and then it went away.

This isn’t to say being a work in-progress or grappling with change or enduring growing pains are struggles that are going to “go away.” But the pain of those things will lessen, and you will one day find yourself looking back at this particular moment , and you will marvel at the fact that this stage is over.

Of course, in moments of anxiety or self-deprecation or gazing so far inward that we feel defined by our worst traits, it’s hard to remember that nothing lasts forever and that while change is constant, periods of change come to a close. But they do. While none of us will ever stop growing or evolving or using our pasts to get a better grip on the future, we can remind ourselves that getting through all of it is a feat in itself. The beauty of change is that eventually, we’ll land on the other side and realize how much we learned and how beautiful it was. ♦