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How to Live a Full Life and Smile Your Way Through It

Smiling

“There are only two mantras, yum and yuck, mine is yum.” ~Tom Robbins

I recently had my thirty-first birthday. I am officially in my thirties. This leads to reflection; what have I accomplished with my time as an adult?

I recently started over yet again, making this the fifth state I’ve lived in seven years. I have a roommate, half of the stuff in my room is hers, and I’m temping for a living. I was more prosperous at twenty friggin’ three…

…externally.

If you were to see a photo of me at the age of eighteen next to a current photo, you’d notice a few changes. I’m obviously older and have gained some weight. I finally got those braces off, and my skin cleared up nicely.

However, if you were super-perceptive you’d say, “The young one is nervously smiling. She doesn’t look genuinely happy.” You’d be correct. 

The young one is bulimic. She doesn’t believe in herself. She has no clue who she is. She’s recovering from the trauma of her mother’s suicide. She babbles about boys, gossip, and that’s about it. After nearly everything she says, she glances at those around her like, “right?”, and a nervous laugh sputters out.

Poor dear. She’s scared to death and she doesn’t even know it.

I, the older and curvier one, am honest to goodness happy. Even though things in life don’t look just how I’d like them to yet, I’m excited to see how it plays out.

I know I can have, be, and do whatever I want; I have faith in myself, the forces of life, and divine timing. I’m enjoying checking out experiences as they arrive, and I feel grateful for what they are teaching my soul. That nervous giggle has transformed into a satisfying and hearty belly laugh.

So how did I go from a fake laugh to a real one, and how can you, too?

1. Embrace rock bottom.

I left my hometown in Alaska to go to college in Vegas, sans the childhood friends that handled my traumatized self with kid gloves. I hid in booze, drugs, and boys the best I could; but depression started bubbling halfway through the year, and quickly ignited to a full-on boil.

I binged and purged daily. I would scratch my skin until it bled, because the pain hurt less than the thoughts it was distracting me from.

It all finally erupted and I realized I had to stop hiding and numbing myself. In facing my depression and self-hatred head on, I was able to rebuild my life from a new foundation. It wasn’t easy, but letting myself hit rock bottom was the key to my growth and healing.

If you are having a difficult time, if it feels like everything is crumbling, it’s okay. Weak structures need to break down in order to be rebuilt with strength.

Release the pieces of you that are no longer self-serving, knowing that you are not your past. You are whoever you choose to be, and going through the hard parts just makes that person all the stronger.

2. Create dreams and goals.

Compared to that first year, the rest of college went by fairly uneventfully. I was soon a college graduate, with a corporate job, living with a man I loved. These things were all dreams up until I got them, but as dreams often go, once they came true I quickly outgrew them. I wanted more.

I spent a lot of time articulating what I wanted, trying situations on in my head like outfits. I came to the conclusion that I wanted to move to California on my own, make another 12K a year, and organize fundraisers for charity. So I did.

Then I wanted more again. That’s how dreams go. Love, appreciate, and enjoy them when they come to fruition. Your heart will eventually stir again, signaling time to conjure up some new ones.

3. Take risks.

After a few successful charity fundraisers, being flown to New York twice in recognition, and writing about it all in a national magazine, I realized Southern California didn’t suit this here Alaskan chick. I decided to move to Colorado. The branch of the corporation I was working for serendipitously shut down shortly after that decision.

I used my severance package to start over in Denver. I didn’t know anyone, and I had never been there.  I wanted to see how I’d react to the challenge.

If you never put yourself out there, you’ll never have the space you need to truly grow. Exposing yourself to life’s contrasts is crucial to living it fully, and you can’t do that without involving a little risk.

4. Make the best of any situation.

I thought the lay-offs I witnessed were an isolated incident…it was 2008. My confidence approached arrogance as I surfed into Denver. What I didn’t know is I was riding the first tidal waves of the recession.

I was honest-to-goodness shocked that no one cared about my three years of corporate ladder climbing.  Shocked! I tried desperately for a year, getting only one interview out of hundreds of cover letters. It should have been the worst year ever. It was incredibly stressful, don’t get me wrong, but it was also one of the best years yet.

I met some the raddest people I know, soaked up all Denver had to offer, dreamed new dreams, started meditating, and learned that when I sought strength internally, it was always there. It wound up being a year of delightful transformation.

It’s always our choice what we make of any situation. We can stare at our worries and fret; or we can figure out how to enjoy even dire circumstances, while doing our very best to correct them.

When I could try no longer, I had to head back home to Alaska. I could have done so with my tail betwixt my legs, but I went tail a waggin’ and my chin held high.

5. Face yourself.

Returning to my small hometown was really challenging. I felt like everyone thought they knew me, even though I’d been gone for nearly a decade. I hated the feeling of trying to overcome these preconceived notions; yet at the same time, I was projecting old experiences onto others right back, assuming I knew who they were.

I felt confined, and defined. My joie de vivre eventually faded, slowly, almost too slow to notice; but by the time I left I could barely summon a spark.

I felt incredibly alone, like the only person I had to turn to was myself—which was okay, because turning to face ourselves is exactly what we have to do to overcome the darkness.

Shadow work, or “casting a light on your dark side,” is best done during tough times. Think about how why things are so dark; how did you contribute to it? Ask yourself if you have patterns in your behaviors, thoughts, or beliefs that are getting in your way.

What emotions are you experiencing? Isolate them, and then lean in to them, really feel them. This will help you process them, and only then will they be released, allowing you to move on.

6. Truly and wholly love yourself, all of yourself.

I’ve messed up, many, many times. I chose the proverbial scenic route, for sure. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the missteps I’ve made. You know what? I love myself for it. Those “mistakes” have led me to a place of true self-understanding and knowledge. We can only ever truly love what we truly know.

Embrace your detours, as they are life’s clearest education. We may not choose to learn the hard way in the future, but we should never regret our past. Own it.

Apply the wisdom that you have gained from trying experiences to create awesome ones. Most importantly, have a sense of humor about it all; the hard times, the great times, your achievements, and your shortcomings. They make you you, and you are beautiful.

So I sit here, thirty-one, six months into starting over in Portland Oregon, nary a possession to my name, with a sense of fearless excitement about what’s coming. I live to grow, and I grow to live. I am open to whatever experience life has in store for me, ready to get a great laugh at whatever’s coming next.

Photo by Irina Patrascu

About Meg Hartley

Meg Hartley has written for Mind Body Green, Elephant Journal, Life Hack and Teen Vogue, among others.  Her new book is called How I Lost All My F-cks, a one-month experience that will have you losing all yours!

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  • Love this. Such honesty helps me on my path. : )

  • Wow, I relate a great deal to this article. I moved, did stuff and now I’m back in my home town, trying to figure out what is next (after getting laid off my job) Lately I am kind of stuck and not really feeling excited about the future, but hesitant. A part of me feel great things are ahead and I also see that I’ve come a long way, but still not 100% sure what feels right. I really connected with your article and want to thank you for it:-)

  • Wow! This is thorougly inspiring. When I read this, I feel like I am recieving a bit of wisdom I have yet to grasp and really really apply to my life today. I have quite a few years to get to 31, but I’m doing my best appreciating and living this life with confidence, happiness, and gut wrenching fearlessness. Your story provides me with inspiration and a window into learning to fight for what truly matters. THank you for sharing and I wish you the best on your path 🙂

  • Linda Thompson Whidby

    Beautiful Meghan! I love this quote: “I felt incredibly alone, like the only person I had to turn to was myself—which was okay, because turning to face ourselves is exactly what we have to do to overcome the darkness.” Thank you for the reminder.

  • Boo

    Thank you. Glad I could help!

  • Boo

    Who’s boo? Who’s Esther? Can you please delete these Lori?

    Haha, oooh boy.

  • Dee Wise

    I think your article is great. However, I’m a little dismayed that you are lamenting learning this at the ripe old age of 31. I would kill to have learned this by 31!

  • ccrgirl

    Dear Megan, I want more of your articles! You’re such an inspiration 🙂

  • lv2terp

    Great tips, insight and message! Thank you for being so open and real with your experience!!! BEAUTIFUL!!! 🙂

  • Thank you so much for the support! 🙂

  • Hooooray, thank you! There are many many more at http://www.HalcyonMusings.com. 🙂

  • Haaha, yeah? I constantly look back and feel so silly for thoughts and behaviors of “past me”, I feel like I can’t learn fast enough! Do we all cringe at us five years ago….or sometimes less?

  • Thank you Linda! Ahhh those trying yet hugely transformative times… 🙂

  • Thank you so much Mariel, means a lot!

  • Oh man, you know it lady! Laid off, and back in the ol’ hometown. Stings. Great things are indeed ahead. Just keep following whatever makes time fly by and gives you a goofy grin!

  • Thank you so much for the support Esther! 🙂

  • Mahesh

    Nice one. All the best. Are you of indian origin

  • ha will do! I’m working on it but it is difficult to get back on your feet again and being ‘home’ can be challenging cause you aren’t quite the same person when you return, as you were when originally living there:-)

  • karla cruz

    Grat tips it really inspierse me

  • Lindsey P.

    Meghan, you are a beautiful person 🙂 So happy to read this, you’re really a great writer with voice!

  • Gosh, do I know it!

  • Thank you Lindsey! 🙂

  • Good, really happy to hear it. 🙂

  • Thank you! Nope, I’m the German/Irish/Cherokee lady in the small photo below the article. 🙂

  • Dee Wise

    Yes. One of the most important things is to give up on punishing ourselves for our past “mistakes” and be gentle on ourselves. Very challenging to recognize and change that but so freeing. To be able to offer myself the unconditional love and fulfillment I sought externally has been and is the greatest gift I have ever given and received. Thanks again for a great post.

  • Jamila A

    Meghan,
    Awesome post and beautiful messages throughout. Sending you mucho hugs and good vibes on your new 30+ adventure.
    Blessings!

  • Robb

    Good Afternoon all,

    I came across this articale and I found it might help me overcome my chronic depression. But I have a question about th smiling part. It is so long since I have smiled. Can someone help me learn to smile? I think this is one of the last pieces I need to complete my healing. If I can start smiling at people, and practive my smile, I can move forward.

    Any thoughts, directions, or links that you can suggest?

    Robb
    robbdaigneault@hotmail.com