At the age of 27, Zelda Fitzgerald decided she wanted to become a professional dancer. Having studied ballet as a girl, she started taking classes for almost eight hours a day for three years. She wrote short stories to raise the $300 monthly tuition – over $4,000 in today’s dollars. She never asked her unsupportive husband for a dime because, as she said, “I wanted my dancing to belong to me.”
Although she apparently had a fair deal of talent, she never succeeded in becoming a prima ballerina, and neither will I. But i’m still going to take ballet 5 times a week.
Two months ago I had a job that I was really good at. When it first got there it felt like the perfect lily pad – I liked my coworkers, I believed in the work and I was making more money than ever. But as the months went by I realized the environment was toxic for me. I was pushing everything I cared about aside to become a work zombie, and every week I had to sacrifice more and more of myself to the job. After a particularly heinous day, I talked things out with my support system, gathered my modest savings, and handed in my resignation.
The moment I made the decision to quit I felt my personality coming back into my body. It felt like when blood rushes back into a limb after you slept on it weird.
There was no turning back, but I was terrified. Like serious stomach-cramping-levels-of-anxiety terrified. I knew that even though I had neglected them for months, my friends, family, and my boyfriend probably wouldn’t let me end up living on the street—my worst-case scenario. My decision to leave a full-time job as a journalist to make my own way as a freelancer was stupid by any metric, but it was still the right decision.
Now I hold up the checkout line at the grocery store every week because I’m validating online coupons. I spend the money I save on gourmet cheese. I know that makes no sense.
I imagine this “good” grownup taking inventory of the decisions I’ve made in the last couple of months and scowling. I shouldn’t have left my job; I should have sucked it up and toughed it out. Now that I quit, I should punish myself by living like a miser. I certainly shouldn’t be spending money on ballet lessons and cheese.
But I’ve decided that I don’t want to be a good grownup anymore. I want to be me – intensely, unapologetically me.
A really good therapist told me that deep down, you’re really the person you were at 5. You weren’t ecstatic all the time, you cried sometimes, but you were still a happy person. You didn’t care what other people thought of you. You hadn’t learned to “behave” yet. Sit pretty. Don’t get your dress dirty.
There should be a boot-camp to unlearn all the the years of proper lady training we’ve gone through. When we came out of the other side, I doubt we would actually start acting like kindergarteners. We probably wouldn’t spontaneously bust out into a one-woman talent show in public or run around with chocolate smeared all over our faces.
But maybe we’d sign up for that improv class. Or learn how to pole-dance. Maybe we’ d even stop dieting. We wouldn’t listen to anyone that made us feel ashamed for taking up space in the world.
There’s this part of my brain that gets all warm when I’m making decisions that are just for me, just like Zelda Fitzgerald. Decisions that aren’t strategic or have an end goal. I’m choosing to do this today because. I don’t even have to finish that declaration.
Happy women – now that is a dangerous idea. Happy women speak up when something feels wrong. Happy women don’t buy diet pills. Happy women boost each other up instead of tearing each other down. If we all made a snap decision to make ourselves happy as often as possible, the world would change in a second. It would never be the same.
For a long time I thought I would be happy when I finally shame-trained myself to be perfect – like a corset but for my life. At the end, I would be an award-winning journalist, the super cool friend, and the perfect girlfriend. I would weigh the perfect amount and dazzle everyone around me with how perfect I was.
I made sure to punish myself anytime I strayed from those expectations.
It’s taken me three years to begin letting go of those shackles. I slowly dissolved the self-discipline contract I had written for myself. And you know what? I don’t spend all day eating donuts and watching Netflix. I eat a (mostly) healthy diet and I go to dance class every day because I want to. I haven’t gained 100 pounds, my muscles haven’t atrophied. When I gave myself permission to do anything I wanted, I ate a spoonful of Nutella and then I was like “nah, I’m good.”
Deciding to be myself all the time didn’t instantly transform me into an asshole. My friends are still my friends. My boyfriend hasn’t broken up with me. I bet they probably like me better now that I’m not apologizing all the time and complaining about my job.
I really don’t have anything figured out yet, but in these last weeks I’ve discovered a secret that nobody tells women: Being happy isn’t hedonistic.
I’m learning to treat myself like a special, worthwhile person. Not because I’m perfect, but because I am a person. I’m not going to wait to please my inner critic to be happy. I’m just going to be happy.
It’s taking me a little while, but I’m figuring out that the best part of being a grown up is that I can do whatever I want whenever I want. I don’t have to justify it to anybody, even myself.