When I was 31 years old, I went through a tumultuous breakup that should have happened two years earlier. I had ignored our recurring financial disputes, his wandering eye, and his lack of basic respect for me, because the thought of starting over and delaying my goal of marriage terrified me. I figured that if I overcompensated in every area that was lacking, then the playing field would level and the relationship would succeed. I tried to plan date nights at expensive restaurants to foster the sense of intimacy we were missing, and I tried to be funnier and more engaging to keep his attention. But things never improved and, after three years, I was exhausted. Finally, we parted ways.
Around that same time, I was unexpectedly laid off from my 9-to-5 writing gig at a marketing firm. I was also freelancing as a self-help writer, a side hustle I was hoping to turn into a full-time career. I wrote on topics like rising above bullying behavior, the dynamics of mother-daughter relationships, and general happiness — how to achieve it, what disrupts it. Now, when I look back on my work, I can see that it was founded on the stance that any aspect of life could be achieved if you try and, if that doesn’t work, try harder.
I had relied on this mantra while trying to save my relationship. However, finding myself single and jobless shook my belief in my old way of thinking. I felt robbed of my future happiness, and I couldn’t stop comparing my life to the lives and happiness of my friends, most of whom were married with families. I felt resentful and behind. Why was my life moving backwards? Why couldn’t I have it all, too? And on top of all of that, I felt deeply guilty for resenting my friends.
For a time, I completely stopped writing my self-help articles. Whenever I sat down at my computer, I felt like a fraud. Who would want to listen to me anyway — a self-help writer who couldn’t even help herself?
Even when I was in the thick of my despair, though, part of me expected my bitterness and discouragement to disappear and my willingness to try again to resurface. In an attempt to lift my mood, I threw myself into hobbies I always loved, like cooking, and I adopted my shih tzu, Teddy. And after a couple months passed, I decided it was officially time to pick myself up and get my life back on track. I brainstormed new ideas for articles and began pitching again — but the editors never responded. I tried my hand at dating apps — but I never felt a connection. Discouraged by these setbacks, I wrote many detailed to-do lists and rededicated myself to the work. I’d pitch twice the amount of articles and go on twice as many dates, thinking this would propel me forward and out of the slump. While I knew that I wasn’t fully to blame for my relationship and career not working out — mainly, because I couldn’t control all aspects of life — I figured I could fix myself if I just worked fast enough and hard enough. But “shifting my mindset toward positivity” with “affirming self-talk” — go-to staples of my self-help advice — wasn't working for me anymore. And, I didn’t know why.
The realization that my perspective might be off came to me slowly. I noticed that I was still pushing toward the same goals: a partner and a full-time writing job. The recurring theme to the defeated thoughts that were playing in loops in my mind was that I had fallen off track, and I had to get back to where I’d been a few months earlier. But as time passed and I started to gain some much-needed perspective on my former relationship and job, I began to ask myself: Is that such a good idea?
I felt as though I’d been closer to my goals before my breakup and layoff, but that wasn’t actually true, because I had been taking shortcuts to get to where I wanted to be in life, a strategy that hadn’t really been working out for me. For example, I had stayed in a bad relationship in order to reach my ideal of marriage, which I thought would make me happy even if my partner didn’t. But in truth, if I had walked down the aisle, I never would have been happy with him — and that wasn’t what I wanted for myself.
As embarrassed as I was to admit it, I was also learning that simply wanting something — and trying really hard to get it — doesn’t entitle you to have it. Looking back, it seems ridiculous and definitely privileged that I was just realizing this at 31 years old. But so much of the language around self-help and self-improvement reinforces the idea that happiness is a metric that’s both within your control and meant to rest at 100% at all times. If it dips below that, it means there’s a problem that needs to be fixed STAT. This way of thinking encourages people to blame themselves for being discontent with a certain area of their lives. It makes people see their goals as some kind of prize or achievement that will complete them and foster a state of perpetual joy. But that’s not how life works.
I accepted that my sense of dissatisfaction wasn’t caused by a lack of effort. That didn’t make me feel magically happy with where I was at in life; I still wanted a loving partnership that could eventually lead to marriage, and I wanted a steady career as well. I was also scared to let go of fully controlling my life, and wondered what that would mean for my future.
But there was freedom with this shift in perspective, too. Once I stopped laser-focusing on finding my next significant other, I began going on dates as an opportunity to learn about people — whether or not I could see a future with them. I relaxed more with my matches, because I no longer felt the pressure to be the best version of myself at all times. The quality of my dates improved. I soon began seeing people for months at a time to allow for deeper connections. And now, I’ve been with my current partner for over a year. During the years I was single, I realized that I had been expecting a partner to complete me, which made me look for hypothetical incompatibilities in the people I met, and made me reluctant to let my guard down and show my own imperfections. Now that I no longer need a person to complete me, I’m free to want a person, flaws and all, which I've found lends to a more loving mindset and relationship.
As I let go of my old self-help mantras during this post-breakup period, I also got realistic about my career. I stopped applying for highly competitive writing positions. When I became honest with myself, I knew I wanted — and frankly needed — a job in a more stable industry. I applied for and accepted a writing job in academia. It was less glamorous than the jobs I’d been trying so hard to land, but I soon found that I was growing in areas that interested me, like website development. I attempted to prioritize self-worth over self-entitlement, and I stopped focusing on landing pitches and started writing for myself. I carved out three hours a night to write whatever I wanted, which ultimately turned into my first book.
I still write self-help articles, but my advice is very different. I know firsthand that the clichés pervading so much self-help writing — like that happiness can be a constant state and we have complete control over our outcomes — are self-centered and toxic. They falsely lead us to believe that whenever we try at something, we’re entitled to it, which is a mindset that inevitably results in disappointment and frustration.
Now, I write about how to support and love yourself during all transitions, and I explore how to redefine what can make us happy in the present. I advocate that we open our minds and release the need to control our outcomes. But I also know that this is easier said than done, and that acknowledging that you’re not 100% happy with where you’re at in certain areas of your life doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong.
Today, I’m finally honest — with myself and my advice. I think that makes me more relatable, and it certainly makes me much more humble. And I’m not ashamed that it took me 35 years to learn that happiness can come from pitfalls, like a breakup. My new mantra that I keep close to my heart every day is that I will always be learning, no matter where I am in life.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's bi-monthly column will feature a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email email@example.com.