I was looking for a way to kick off a new decade, and what started as a little letter to my younger self got real when she wrote back.
I am not really a journal kind of a person. But I always wanted to be. In fact, I have a pretty eclectic collection of notebooks, each filled with to-do lists, little doodles, and inspiring thoughts or phrases. But this year, having gone through a divorce and leaving my career in financial services to become a speaker and consultant on inspired leadership and inclusion, I felt compelled to try something new. Afterall, I reinvented my misfit-self, week by week, month by month, so I thought it best to chronicle somehow. I decided to write a letter to myself, thinking it sounded sort of sweet and straightforward at the outset. Instead, it was cathartic and meaningful, but also painful and gut-wrenching. But hey, that’s how we grow, right?
Dear Young Self,
I think so often about how much you carried in that little body. As the only daughter growing up in our Indian family, you did your best to be that dutiful child, even as you were relegated to the sidelines when your brothers were treated to special rites of passage ceremonies you would never experience. You did your best to show gratitude to our parents who had sacrificed everything as Ugandan refugees to get us to America so we could live with freedom of education and religion.
You were the master juggler. You desperately wanted to be liked, trying to live up to others’ expectations so people would see you as a model student, daughter, sister, athlete, and even grocery store check-out girl.
You kept our darkest secrets, and it helped us survive. No matter how much pressure and stress mounted around you—being so poor, expectations so high—you always gave that 10,000-watt smile. You so wanted to be an all-American girl, trying to hide the fact that you were a Head Start kid and that you had to leverage the free-lunch program.
And you held the biggest secret of all—the verbal, physical, and sexual abuse—you endured. You hid behind academics and extra-curricular activities as a means of coping, knowing these defining ingredients would be your ticket to a better life. And you were desperately afraid of losing ground, that if all of your misfit qualities and things you were “letting happen” to you would prove that you weren’t perfect, that you didn’t have it all together. Family, friends, and allies would abandon you.
You may not have known you were doing it, but you laid the groundwork to get us out. You swallowed your pride and your innocence, looking for an end in sight. Teachers and coaches thought you were incredibly positive—you earned the Silver Whistle award for best sportsmanship in 6th grade, and you became vice president of your senior class, were voted onto homecoming court, and excelled as an NCAA student athlete. Little did outsiders know, you wished you didn’t have to grow up so fast or hide aspects of who you were. Finding allies and opportunities to help a poor, broken, Indian girl seemed overwhelming, so you were not about to disrupt those odds. Instead, you made sacrifices and compromises.
As hard as it was, these layers of armor served us well. So, thank you for giving us a chance to succeed and thrive. It’s because of you that we got this far.
Dear Future Self,
Thank you for coming back for me. I know it’s been hard to look back at painful memories, but I am grateful you are unpacking the things I carried for us all these years so you can truly live a fulfilled life. I’m so grateful you never felt sorry for me because that was the one thing I didn’t want people to do. Be good to yourself—you’ve earned it. It’s ok to be a misfit. The aspects that make you different are your most treasured strengths.
I admire that you are opening yourself up to others, and I forgive you for sharing our secrets. By being vulnerable, you are able to relate to and elevate others. You are beginning to see your value outside your career and learning to redefine what the future of life and work could really look like by pursuing your passions on a bigger stage.
I am glad you are learning the value of embracing your truths and that it is ok—wise, even—to ask for help. I was incredibly proud of you when you came to realize and admit that you are a lesbian. It was so brave, and it helped to set us free.
But to be truly free, it’s time for you to let go. Loosen your grip on the rules to which you conditioned yourself. I hope you can find ways to honor yourself and to be more present with everything that comes your way instead of trying to be one step ahead all the time. I was in survival and adapting mode. It’s time for you to thrive. You’ve got this! You may not always see it, but I do: You are a caring and courageous person with the ability to truly help people.
Keep leaning into the love you’ve found and deserve, and never stop defining (and redefining) the way you want to make a mark on this world. Don’t work so hard to plan for the end, as this is only the beginning.