As I know it was for many, 2021 was a tumultuous, monumental year for me. I said yes to numerous things that were outside my comfort zone but that sparked joy. These mainly included participating in The Sanctuary Challenge, The Wisdom Fusion Project, and running a Creativity Cluster based on The Artist’s Way course.
2021 was filled with beautiful highs such as releasing my second book, Snapshots of Spain, and growing closer with the Bookstagram community along the way. At the same time, this past year was filled with so much uncertainty, waiting, and not-knowing when it came to Coronavirus, vaccinations, and travels to see my family. Overall, whether “good” or “bad,” there was just so much that happened and changed over the last twelve months.
For this reason, when fellow indie author Lucie Ataya tagged me to participate in her #12months12takeaways challenge on Instagram, I was immediately inspired to share all that I’ve learned from 2021. You see, the end of one year and the start of another is always a special time for me. I’ve been using this period of time for reflection and intention-setting since I was very young. I started keeping my first diary when I was seven years old and, ever since, I have spent some time at the end of each December looking back on what had happened and how I had changed since I first started writing.
After a while, this tradition began taking me too long to be sustainable and so I would limit my re-read to only that calendar year. However, 2021 ended up being a stand-out year for this tradition. Because of my trip back to the United States, where I collected each and every one of these diaries that had been left there, I ended up reading them all from the very beginning—1999 through 2021! This was no small feat. It took me from October 28th to December 26th but boy, oh boy, was it worth it!
Reading through my old journals was both comforting and unsettling. There were so many beautiful memories to be relived but there were also so many self-sabotaging behaviors and unhealthy tendencies I’ve noticed that I’ve been dealing with for years. I ended up turning this re-read into a self-study of sorts (that’s the sociology major in me coming through!) and what resulted were thirty overarching themes.
I didn’t count them out until I was finished with the full study, but I find the synchronicity of this number—when 2021 was the year I turned thirty—to be very meaningful. For the sake of Lucie’s 12 in 12 challenge, I have distilled my lessons learned into the twelve main points I saw coming up again and again and that I feel I truly embraced (or at least began to embrace) in 2021.
My 2021 Takeaways:
1.) Time you enjoy wasting is NOT wasted time.
I know, I know, this sentiment has somewhat become a platitude of the self-care community around the world. It’s one of those things I’ve always said I believed, but it’s really not until this year that I feel like I’ve gotten better at living it.
For years, I’ve struggled with wanting to be someone who follows her flow and fills up her cup before worrying about “achieving” each day. The truth, though, is that I still have such a productivity-driven mindset. I can easily encourage others to prioritize rest and rejuvenation; I always sing the praises of downtime. I’ve even gotten quite good at taking days off and spending my weekends prioritizing reading, journaling, going for walks, and other me-time activities over “work.”
And yet, it’s only in the last few months that I’m really beginning to learn how to take guilt-free me-time. This is what I’ve realized: I used to take time to do these things that fill up my cup, but I never fully believed they weren’t a slight waste of my time. It’s really hard for me to let go of my productivity = value outlook on life, although I am slowly but surely getting there. I am really starting to value the time spent on the things I need for myself. I am starting to understand that this is not a waste of my time.
2.) You can’t please everyone, so at least please yourself.
This takeaway is also one I would have always nodded along to, but that I hadn’t actually started to embrace in my life until recently. It’s one of those easier-said-than-done pieces of advice but I think it is oh so vital to come to terms with sooner, rather than later.
I am a people-pleaser. I’ve known this about myself for a long time. I also know, though, that it’s simply not possible to please everyone all the time. It’s just not. So why have I spent so much of my life trying anyways? I don’t know; it’s an answer I’m still working on uncovering. Sadly, I think it comes from a fear of letting people down, of not being loved if I don’t make myself available to what every important person in my life needs, all the time. However, I know that I would never expect that from my loved ones, so why put that unrealistic and unfair expectation on myself?
At the end of the day, I am trying to remember that there will probably always be someone who is not pleased by my choices. There is will probably always be someone who I “let down.” For many of years of my life, I have always tried to do the thing that would disappoint the fewest people possible but, so often, the person whose needs and wishes didn’t even get considered was me. Going forward, I’m trying to at least ensure that I make the list of people who aren’t let down.
3.) There is nothing wrong with changing your priorities or intentions.
I used to hang on to so many things (goals, traditions, relationships) just because that’s “how I always do it” and not because I still deeply value them. This is unhealthy and unnecessary weight to carry around. This is the weight that I’m most looking forward to shedding in 2022.
I’m trying to let go of these habitual behaviors and, instead, embrace growth and change. I’ve come to realize that thriving in my life is a continuous process of checking in with myself and re-evaluating what I need. My wants and needs are always changing. I need to allow them to do so.
I closed one of my 2021 journals (because, yes, this year couldn’t even fit into one book) with the line: “I have outgrown the person in this journal…and so I will move on to thrive in the next one.” This was a hard thing for me to reconcile. It felt scary to recognize that I no longer identity with the person I’ve been for so long. At the same time, if you have grown out of the habits you used to keep and the person you used to be, you must have the strength to admit it and lovingly walk away. You must do yourself that favor. And so, I am trying.
4.) “I don’t want to be just one facet of myself, I want to be the full diamond.”
I must credit a Wisdom Fusion friend for these words but they perfectly describe how I feel these days. There are so many different sides to who I am, who I have been, and who I want to be. I am not one-dimensional.
It can be confusing that I have so many different sides of myself and, especially, that those facets are often at odds with each other. Yet, at the end of the day, as I wrote once in my journal, “I still love me, all of me.” I am not ashamed of the person I once was, but I have grown older and wiser. I will carry a reminder of that Dani with me, with love, always but I do not need to be her anymore.
This is definitely a practice. I have my good days when it’s easy to embrace all my different facets and I truly feel that doing so is like stepping into the “full diamond” that I am meant to be. I have other days when this is much, much harder and I can be very self-judgmental. It’s through my work with The Artist’s Way that I’m truly working on taming that inner critic. There is, so often, no need for her.
Instead, in the coming year, I will be embracing the beauty of what twenty-six-year-old me once wrote: “I am proud of the person I am (and the even cooler person I am becoming). I am the sum of all the best selves I have ever been.”
5.) Important life moments are full of mixed emotions.
Throughout this year, I’ve had times in which I felt so overwhelmed by conflicting feelings and stretched to my thinnest. I felt like this was the most difficult year I’ve gone through mentally and emotionally. And yet, looking back through my diaries, I’ve realized that every milestone, every transition, and every big moment in my life has come wrapped up in a similar flurry of mixed emotions.
Excitement and fear. Sadness and anticipation. Tension and relief. Joy and guilt. Pride and disappointment. Maybe it’s just me, but I rarely have one emotion at once! When I think back on these events years later, I tend to remember only the positive sides but when I look at the evidence of what I wrote at the time, it was a very different reality.
This lesson, in itself, fills me with mixed emotions! On one hand, it’s frustrating to realize that I may never feel one pure emotion alone. On the other hand, it’s comforting to know that I have been here before. The whirlwind of feelings that have been surrounding me recently are nothing new. I have weathered this storm countless times with so much success that I didn’t even remember the storm after the fact.
6.) Learning and growth are not one in the same.
This is perhaps the biggest takeaway of 2021 for me as it has informed almost every other one. I once wrote in my diary that I have “much knowledge and little wisdom” and I am only recently beginning to feel like I’m gaining more wisdom. This is because I’ve begun to see the difference between learning and growth.
Learning theories and concepts can be light and fun, but this only results in surface-level knowledge. This learning is what we tend to do when we read self-help books or follow “personal development” gurus. True wisdom comes from growth, but growth is an uncomfortable, icky process. It takes place in the dark—like seeds planted deep under the soil’s surface or a caterpillar alone in its cocoon. We can’t dig them up or cut them open to check if they’re growing, we have to just keep waiting and trust the process. True growth and transformation do not feel fun. With growth, comes some major growing pains! But the process is oh so necessary.
I felt this time and time again through the out-of-my-comfort-zone experiences of 2021. I went into things like The Wisdom Fusion Project and The Artist’s Way thinking that I was seeking one thing and the truth is that I found something totally different. At the time, I often felt frustrated that the experience was so “negative” that it left me feeling drained, rather than inspired. When I look back now, I see that that’s because true growth was happening. It can hurt to change; it doesn’t feel all warm and fuzzy. But it’s only because of this uphill battle that I feel I had open eyes and an open heart to learn all these other lessons.
7.) It’s when I feel that all my progress is coming undone that I’m really growing.
In a similar vein, I’ve come to realize that the biggest periods of transformation in my life consistently come after a period in which I feel as if I’m “unraveling.” The writer in me can’t help but acknowledge that this is much in keeping with the “All is Lost” moment writers are encouraged to include before the climax of their novels.
Strong character development requires a character to hit their proverbial rock bottom before they find the strength and wherewithal to finally put to use the things they learned earlier in the story and grow into the person they need to be. This is so commonplace in writing that it can be called formulaic, and yet, I had never before realized how true it is in my own life.
It is very hard to see this when you’re in one of your down moments. Trust me, I know; I’ve been there too. However, thanks to all the copious entries I’ve made in my journals over the years about similar experiences, I can now say, hand-on-heart, that the formula is valid. It really does happen in life that the biggest payoffs, the biggest growth spurts, and best outcomes emerge only after you feel at your lowest. So, if you’re feeling like you’re still there, that’s okay! Feel everything you’re feeling, continue through the process, but hold out hope because the winds will change.
8.) I must trust the winding river of life.
Speaking of which, I have always felt connected to Pocahantas and her song “Just Around the Riverbend” far more than I have connected with any other Disney princess. The reasoning for this seems to reveal itself to me more and more each year. It’s as if I can’t see around the river bend enough to understand it fully until I arrive…which is exactly what this song now means to me!
Today, when I look back on my life I can see exactly why I am where I am. Each small decision that led to the next makes complete sense. And yet, I must say that life truly seems to twist and turn in ways we wouldn’t expect and so we can’t see around the next bend until we get close enough. Where I’m at now in my life makes complete sense knowing everything I know now, but I could have never seen it coming, even just twelve months ago.
This is both terrifying and reassuring. It’s scary not to be able to plan and anticipate but if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that we adapt and carry on regardless. I still hate not knowing, but I am slowly getting a little better at trusting the winding river that is my life. I trust the vessel I’m in and the companions I’ve selected and now, like Pocahantas, I’m trying to just enjoy the ride.
9.) Guilt has played an unfairly large role in my life.
This takeaway is less inspiring than the others, but I could not create this list without acknowledging it. I don’t think this hit me in its fullness until I read my eleven-year-old self already expressing feelings of guilt and fear of letting others down. I have always been incredible concerned about what others think of me and I’ve allowed this to manifest itself as self-judgment and crippling guilt—over the big things like moving abroad, but also the tiniest things like taking time for myself first thing in the morning.
Remember how I said I can take “me-time” now, but I’m not always allowing myself to feel good about it? Yeah, I need to kick this habit. It is definitely standing in the way of me pleasing at least myself!
Recognizing how truly unfair this is to me is the first step and I’m so glad to have taken it in 2021. Moving forward, I will be focusing on overcoming this, on learning how to let go of that guilt and not feeling it when I know my actions are in alignment with my values. Guilt can serve as an important warning sign when it is warranted (when we have truly done something wrong that we ought to correct or repent), but the majority of the guilt I feel is not fair or justified. And so, it needs to be put in its place.
10.) I still have a ways to go before I can set the boundaries I need.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to be the kind of person who is self-aware enough to be able to pinpoint my needs and then share them with others. I want to be able to set healthy boundaries so that I can show up in my relationships without compromising myself. At the same time, I’m coming to see that I still need to grow a bit more before I’m able to do this. Why? Because that pesky guilt is still creeping up at every turn!
Right now, even just speaking aloud my thoughts and feelings elicits guilt and so I can’t get near to spelling out needs and boundaries in a lasting and sustainable way. I’m working on it, though. In the last month or so, I have been prioritizing time to myself to get clear on my values and intentions (reminding myself that this is not “wasted time”) and I am slowly but surely identifying my wants and needs in accordance with those values.
The next step, for me, feels like employing professional help to guide me on how to release the guilt and self-judgements (all my surface-level learning is proving not to be enough, I need to invest in real growth now). Only after I work through all of these steps can I truly expect myself to expand my self-awareness to sharing my needs and boundaries honestly with others. It can feel frustrating to think that I “know” how to do these things and yet I’m not ready to do them, but the truth is that I just need some more wisdom under my belt before I’m ready.
11.) We are human BEINGS, not human doings.
A friend from my Sanctuary Challenge accountability group shared this quote at the beginning of 2021 and, like so many other times, I nodded my head because it resonated with me. However, ten months later, I am still only beginning to embrace this life lesson.
This year, I have realized that I am incredible uncomfortable with having free time. I feel a constant need to be doing, even when it comes to rest. I can literally only go a few seconds sitting still before I start to brainstorm things to do—read, journal, go for a walk, take a bath, watch a show. These are all things that fill up my cup, but they are also all examples of activities, of doing.
As I move forward, I want to practice being more patient and being more open to stillness and to the moment. I know I still have a fear that if I truly embraced “being” over “doing” then I would never accomplish anything. However, the truth is that I regularly find myself accomplishing the most on days when I choose not to worry about outcome and instead prioritize just “being” first and foremost. I have a lot of deep-seated beliefs that stand in the way of continuously living my life in this manner and so in 2022 I will simply be practicing getting better at “being”—in small ways at first and hopefully stretch them into bigger and more important ways as I go.
12.) “Life happens in weird rushes and slow waves.”
I wanted to end my list with this quote from a 2021 diary entry because it feels like it sums up exactly where I’ve been recently. This past year has definitely been one of weird rushes and slow waves. For me, January through August often felt like an endless, hopeless eternity. We were waiting in the uncertainty of when we would get our vaccinations and when we would be able to see our families again. Finally, at the end of August we were off to the UK and US to see family for the first time since this pandemic hit.
I thought things would slow down and feel more “normal” after that, but my journey since then has been anything but. Now I have different uncertainties in my life, different “pots on the stove,” as I like to see it. This final quarter of the year has passed in a whirlwind. I feel like all of the things I have been learning from this year finally caught up with me and pushed me to make real changes, to undergo real transformation. I know I’m not done. In fact, I’ll never be done. But I will say that I’m beginning to feel the tide easing up, the waves slowing down…at least for this season.
I’m so grateful for all I’ve learned in 2021. These takeaways are truly a culmination of thirty years’ worth of reflection and wisdom. I credit something out there in the universe for encouraging me to dive back into my journals at the exact moment I did. I know it was not a coincidence. These kinds of transformations don’t happen by happenstance. I see this now to be true. It was just my river bending in a way I hadn’t realized it would until I arrived. Damn, has it been a wild ride. I wouldn’t have it any other way, though.
What about you? What has this past year taught you? I would truly love to know!