Why I Stopped Trying To “Find Myself” — & You Should Too

Welcome to Life Begins At. Refinery29 is proud to team up with AARP to bring you honest, intimate stories that aim to uncover all the unique experiences that come along with living — no matter your age. It’s time we shed the negative stereotypes, unconscious cultural bias, and misconceptions associated with age and get real about what aging really looks like for us. Because it’s not about how old you are; life begins when you decide to start living it. Have your own story to share about aging? Fill out this form or email us at lifebeginsat@refinery29.com
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When I was little, I could play by myself for hours. I was quiet, timid, and nurturing — making sure all my dolls were cared for, safely tucked into bed with their bottles. Periodically, I would hear my mother yell my name from downstairs, likely to make sure I was alive. I’d have to run from my room to the top of the stairs to yell back down — my voice didn’t carry that far.
Even though I had a lot of energy and was talkative with my closest friends and family, at school or in new social situations, I was a reserved kid. I never spoke out of turn — or really spoke at all, if I could avoid it. I was small and could easily go unnoticed, and I liked it that way. I liked reading. I liked being in my own head. I wasn’t socially awkward, just a girl trying to figure out how to grow up.
We learn so many methods of understanding ourselves from the things we’re exposed to. From books and movies, I easily identified as the nerdy, smart friend. All my friends were louder, prettier, more popular. In addition to being smaller than everyone else, I had a year-round tan inherited from my dad, big eyes inherited from my grandma, and thick eyebrows from some unidentified genetics. I wasn’t conventionally pretty, or so I thought. I excelled at school, boys would ask me about my friends, and I quickly learned that I had the wit for one-liners, which easily gained me social cred without the hassle of a follow-up conversation. I was steadfast in my role, and I figured everyone else was, too.
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I remember when I was 15, a boy at an amusement park told me I was pretty and asked for my number. I panicked. Instead of telling myself that I knew I was pretty, too, I thought, Who the hell am I now?
For most of high school and college, I tried to figure that out, definitively, while also trying to distract myself from my insecurities. My body had changed from a slim, small girl into a curvy woman, thanks to my Mexican genes. I was too self-conscious, too animated, too weird in high school. I wasn’t sophisticated enough or worldly enough or, frankly, rich enough for my prestigious college. Everything I wore, did, felt, or said felt like high-stakes living. I wanted to shrink until I came out the other side.

I never felt like I knew what I was doing or the way I was supposed to be; I figured that as I headed towards adulthood, that was something that would eventually become clear.

I enjoyed my time at school, don’t get me wrong. But I never felt like I knew what I was doing or the way I was supposed to be; I figured that as I headed towards adulthood, that was something that would eventually become clear. So I just waited for things to get there. For the time when I’d find myself.
And then something happened in the final years of college: I began to speak up in class, and my thoughts had weight. I felt more confident, more sure of the fact that even when I didn’t know the answers, I could figure them out. And that sometimes, being the one in the room without the answers makes you a bigger asset — someone to really listen and question and see a bigger picture.
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I can’t tell you why I started to speak up. Not every breakthrough or change starts from a huge epiphany. Sometimes it just gradually happens when you start choosing different ways of leading your daily life. I began to feel like someone — like myself. I began to dress the way I wanted all the time, embracing my new, curvy body for the first time. I changed my beauty routine and played up my full brows and full cheeks. I started to appreciate my weird sense of humor, my bluntness, my observational tendencies. I thought I was on my way to finally figuring out what this adulthood thing was all about.
They say your 20s are the best years of your life — and in some respects that’s true. After college, I started a career in editorial, started earning (some) money, and started making (what I deemed to be) lifelong friends. But here’s the thing no one tells you about your 20s: They’re not the best years because they’re necessarily good. They’re the best because they are some of the highest highs and the lowest lows. I was broke (editorial jobs don’t pay a ton and I’d put myself through college), I dealt with some crazy roommates (thanks NYC!), I went on plenty of weird dates, and I encountered countless other disappointments. But it was the culmination of these things that made me realize just how different my life could be at any moment — that one turn or one decision is one step toward something new.
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When I turned 30, things changed more drastically than I felt they ever had before: I was laid off. I questioned living in the city I’d lived in for nearly a decade. I looked around and saw my friends and the fact that we were in completely different places in life — working big jobs, getting married, having kids, traveling the world. Some had all of that, some had none of that. But even as this introspection was going on, I also felt strangely accomplished and confident and beautiful. I had done a lot in the last three decades — not all of it great — but I had done it. When I looked in the mirror, I saw someone who was still questioning everything but finally felt okay about that.

I now realize that coming into one’s own happens all the time — there’s no requisite monumental breakthrough or magical age when you think you’ve got it all or know yourself fully.

Illustration by Elsa Jenna, Animation by Misha Townsend
As I've gotten older, I've realized that “finding” yourself is less about knowing exactly what “role” you play or even knowing definitively who you are. It’s about feeling courageous and confident and empowered in the person you are now and using that to navigate the highs and lows as best you can. I spent so long stressing over who I was (and wasn’t), but I now realize that coming into one’s own happens all the time — there’s no requisite monumental breakthrough or magical age when you think you’ve got it all or know yourself fully.
I now get to embrace the things that have been undeniably me all along — my distinct looks, my unabashed joy, my nerdiness — and the fact that I’m still changing with the ebbs and flows of life.
Ask me how I feel in another 10 years. I’m sure I’ll have a different response. But it’ll still be mine.
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