When I went to college, I thought my experience should look like a J. Crew catalog. I picked a university 3,000 miles away from home in a small, picturesque New England town. I thought that if I picked a place that was so radically different from the people and place I grew up in, that would be the best way to become the J.Crew model and have a different kind of life.
Boy, was I wrong.
I only spent one year at that school, but it taught me one of the most valuable lessons in life: wherever you go, there you are.
Defining what you want
Going away to college can be the perfect opportunity to let go of old behaviors and beliefs that you’re ready to discard, but don’t forget there’s only one you. And you don’t have to change everything about yourself to be the person you want to be.
That was my mistake; I thought the best way to reinvent myself was by running away from everything that made me… me. Instead, I was miserable and quickly realized that what I really needed to do was honor the person I was and appreciate all the good things about myself.
Before you embark on your own reinvention, I invite you to do a quick exercise.
Grab a piece of paper and a pen and write at the top: What do I like about myself? Start writing down all the things that you really like about yourself. Don’t over think it—you’re the only person who will be reading this, so you want to make sure you’re honest about how you feel.
Once you have that list, grab a fresh piece of paper, draw a line down the middle and in one column, write What parts of myself do I want to change? and in the second columns write Why do I want to change this?
Start making that list you’ve been thinking about for months. Write down all the things about yourself that you wish would magically go away. Then ask yourself – why?
That’s the question I didn’t ask myself when I was younger. I took this “all or nothing” approach to reinvention and never stopped for a moment to really look at the things I did like about myself. And I never questioned the things that I needed to change.
Change you want vs. change you should want
There’s a lot of pressure in high school to conform to the likes and dislikes of your friends and family. Some days it’s just about getting through first period without saying or doing something that might be judged as “uncool.”
So when you’re looking at your list of “Why I want to change these things,” think about whether or not an aspect of your personality or a particular behavior is something you want to change or something you think you should change. It’s the why that will help you start to understand who you are and what you believe in which is what college is all about.
For example, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be less critical and more open to new people. That’s a fantastic thing to work on and a good way to start making friends that will open you up to new experiences.
Yet, how far do you have to go to be “less critical?” Being less critical of people doesn’t mean that you have to discard your own values and beliefs. It also doesn’t mean that you have to agree with someone or something that doesn’t feel right to you.
It also doesn’t mean that if you change how you dress, the music you listen to, the food you eat and the people you hang out with, that you’re truly reinventing yourself—because you’re not. In the end you’ll find that you’re still you and you need to like the person you are.
There’s an expression I always use with my clients: “You and only you have to lay your head on your pillow at night, so you need to make sure you’re living the life you want.” Don’t change the things about yourself that define who you are and what you believe in.
How to make true and lasting change
What I learned from my own freshman year experience was that there really is no true way to completely change the person you are—and that’s a good thing. Instead of trying to become the “hippie chick” or the “funny girl,” use your time in college to gain awareness of what feels true to you.
This is your time to explore new interests and hobbies, define your beliefs about yourself and the people around you, learn how to say “I’m sorry” when you’ve hurt another person, learn how to stand your ground when you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong and let go of old hurts and ideas that you now realize weren’t even yours to begin with.
After college, when you transition from college to the working world, you’re going to encounter even more challenges that will test your confidence and sense of self. I know that you’ll be able to face those challenges because you just spent four years exploring and defining the best version of yourself.
Tess Brigham, MFT is a 20-something love and life coach. She empowers young adults to become the best version of themselves. She also coaches the parents of 20- somethings so parents can successfully launch their kids while maintaining their sanity. Check out her website. If you want to speak with her further about therapy or coaching, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a FREE 20-minute consultation. She can be found on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.