Things I Wish I Had Known Sooner.

By the time I was 16, I was certain I had picked up life’s essential lessons—the stunning innocence of youth. I had amazing parents, I was a Girl Guide for years, and I survived the strict South African school system, ergo, I had all the answers and was prepared to take on the world. A year later, at the wise old age of 17, I set off to university and found out how little I really knew. And that was only the beginning. Here are six things I wish I had figured out sooner.

Let it be. I was late to this party. Not sure how I got this idea in my mind, but, as an adult, I thought I was required to respond, react, reply or even retaliate to every request, argument, discussion, and debate. What a colossal a relief it was to discover, I did not have to! You don’t need the last word. You don’t have to comment on every statement. You can just let it be.

Don’t confuse good manners with being a doormat. Polite behavior was prized in our home, but somehow, I confused this with not complaining. It took me years to figure out you can be kind and considerate without being subservient. If a waiter mixed up my order, I thought it wasn’t polite to point it out, so I ate the food given to me. One of the reasons I became an etiquette teacher (decades ago) was to teach kids and teens the difference. It is possible to be both courteous and assertive. 

Your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness. I was well into my 30’s before I figured this out. I had always prided myself on my organizing skills, and they served me well. I had systems for everything and ran my life like a well-oiled machine. Efficiency was my middle name, and I had little time for disorganized people. What finally opened my eyes was an argument with a good friend. She suggested an impromptu Sunday morning beach brunch, which I promptly turned down. Why? I always did my weekly grocery store run on a Sunday. She was furious about my lack of flexibility, and the word “rigid” may have been tossed around. But, off I went, list in hand—set out by aisles, of course—and proceeded to shop. I was 10 minutes in when it hit me. I was a fool! What I valued so highly was, in fact, holding me back. 

3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months, 3 years. When we first moved to the States, it could have been the dark side of the moon. I felt like an alien-being who had to re-learn everything from scratch. With all the stresses, I found myself worn down by the smallest things. The fact that I didn’t know how much a nickel was (name your money by the value, not the metal!) crushed me as much as missing family. I started the 3-3-3-3 approach. Example: I broke a bowl with great sentimental meaning. Result: tears. Question: How will I feel about this in 3 days? Slightly less upset. In 3 weeks? Vaguely annoyed by loss. 3 months? What bowl? You get the picture. I did this with my children from the time they were little, and it really helped them gain perspective. 

It is okay to say no. Let me say upfront, I am a joiner. I like meeting new people, I am hugely curious, and I value being part of something bigger than my own world, so I sign-up and join in. This has always stood me in good stead; if I hadn’t joined groups, clubs, volunteer circles, classes, and so on, I would never have made the friends or built the life I have now. However, it took me until well into my 40’s to figure out; it was okay to say no. Before that big awakening, I assumed that once I had signed up for something, I had darn well better accept all requests. It never occurred to me I had the right to pick and choose.

Stop caring what others think about you—one of my hardest lessons learned. I think we all hit a point in our pre-teen years when we suddenly become concerned about what other people think about us. We undertake every action not for ourselves, but with a view to how others will respond. If I sign up for drama club, will people think I am a limelight hog? If I talk to that guy, will my friends think I’m a flirt? Even though we know it is futile, we continue to let other people’s opinions hold us back from doing what we want to do or how we want to present ourselves to the world.

When we moved to the US, I was the proverbial fish out of water. People quickly let me know what they thought: I dressed too smartly, I spoke too fancily, I was too prim and proper, too put-together. So, what did I do? I tried to change so that I fitted in better. Well, that lasted a few months, and then it struck me—I didn’t care what they thought about me. I was exhausted from just navigating life here, I didn’t have the time or energy to try fit into their expectations or measure up to what they thought I ought to be. Their opinion was theirs, and it had absolutely zero to do with me. Now, I have a very small circle of family and friends whose opinions I value and trust. The rest are free to think whatever they want to about me.

What did I do with all this late-gained knowledge? I shared it with my children. No doubt they’ll discover “stuff” they wish they had known about sooner, but at least someone may benefit from my epiphanies. 

I’ll bet you saw yourself in some of these, and if you have your own things-you-wish-you-knew-sooner, please add in the comments.

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8 comments on “Things I Wish I Had Known Sooner.
  1. Very well written! All of these are on my list too!

  2. Perdita says:

    This wonderful piece resonated with me 100%. I also taught my kids to be courteous while being assertive! And learning to say No – oh my gosh! It was so liberating once I felt comfortable setting that boundary. I could go on and on. It’s as if you read my mind and lived MY life. Well written.

    • Jane Paterson says:

      Thanks Perdita. So happy you found it a good read. We ex-pats share so much in common. Loved your comments on Facebook too.

  3. Bernadette Fasano says:

    Jane, this is so spot on for me. One of the reasons I LOVE about being in my 50’s is that I truly do what I feel is best or just what I want to do. I don’t worry about what people think. This is not to be selfish or arrogant it is to be my true self! I have also tried to pass this mind set on to my three girls. Thanks again for sharing your amazing blogs!

    • Jane Paterson says:

      Thanks, Bern. Yes! It is so freeing to embrace the notion of just being yourself. So important we pass this onto our children, so they don’t wait until their 50’s to figure it out!

  4. Abby says:

    Loved it Jane – one thing I wish I learned which you pointed as well in more eloquent words is that we must seize the moments and spending time with the people in our lives should be our number one goal – not the places we go, not the stuff we accumulate but the conversations and the sharing of space with the people we love –

    • Jane Paterson says:

      Yes, Abby, words to live by! I made great progress along the do-stuff-don’t-buy-stuff path years ago, but these current times have heightened my awareness even more.

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