23 Life Lessons I’ve Learnt From 23 Years of Living

On 21st June (the summer solstice!) I turned 23. This comes a month before I leave the life that I built for myself in Japan and return to the UK to find out what happens next. For anyone who follows the blog, you guys will know that my 22nd year has been a rough one. I’ve had some pretty low points, some moments of unparalleled beauty and clarity and made some memories that I’ll keep with me for a long time. Facing big change is never easy so to ground myself and to help anyone else who’s feeling a little overwhelmed right now, I wanted to share some lessons with you, 23 in fact.

Some of these lessons were harder to learn than others, but all of them have played a part in getting me to 23 as a stronger and wiser person. 

1. I can eat food I don’t like

Being in Japan has meant trying a lot of new foods and some of them haven’t been that great- I’m looking at you cold udon!

The benefits of eating food you don’t like goes beyond not insulting everyone you eat with. And managing to eat food you don’t like AND not dry heave in everyone’s face is a bonus. It shows respect, an awareness of others and maturity. Putting your respect for someone else’s feelings, be it a colleague, friend or family member, over your immediate desire to reject change is going to benefit you in the long run. 

I used to be a really picky eater and I still am. But since coming to Japan and facing an irrepressible wave of kindness from a multitude of hosts I decided to, literally, swallow my pickiness and put the people first. Food and eating is at the heart of so many cultures and rejecting it means a lot of closed opportunities.

Telling myself to say ‘ahhh’ and trying a bushel of new foods has even led to some new favourite eats! I hated anko (red bean) and mochi when I first came, wouldn’t try them and when I did I’d already decided I didn’t like them. But now, after a couple more tries and less bias- I love them!

Eating food you don’t like seems pretty simple, but it’s a lesson that has taught me a lot more about myself than I expected to learn. Being able to put people first and step out of my comfort zone is a sign of my resilience. It’s one way for me to practice making the important decision of choosing discomfort for a bigger reason or long-term benefit. With eating food I don’t like, the benefit is strengthening relationships with people, practising a bit of discipline and control and just broadening my gobble net!

Kinako dango- made by me!

2. Consistency over intensity

Following this theme of discipline, I’ve learnt the value of consistency over intensity. For more reliable and durable progress, it’s consistency all the way. I’ve spoken a lot about this in my fitness posts, but it doesn’t just apply to fitness. Consistency in anything, work, writing or even positive thinking, is more beneficial than a quick, powerful burst. 

Slow and steady wins the race folks! 

3. I need to stop biting my nails

One area of my life that I need to be more consistent, is trying to stop biting my nails!

Since COVID-19 snuck onto the scene, I’ve been wearing facemasks on the daily. An unexpected perk to this is that, as my mouth is completely covered, I’m unable to bite my nails. Nail-biting has been one of my own pet peeves for years and I’ve been doing it on and off (mainly on) since high school.

It started as a nerves thing and then just developed into a boredom thing. I know that I bite my nails less when they’re painted so I’m trying to keep up the at-home manicures to break the habit!

4. Jealousy isn’t worth the hassle

If you read my post on schadenfreude then you’ll know that jealousy and allowing your own sense of self to be influenced by others has been at the forefront of my mind this year. All this thinking has had a positive impact on my mindset when it comes to jealousy

I’m realising that we don’t need to be jealous and that on the whole jealousy does more harm than good to us. This epiphany does come from an isolated lifestyle in the Japanese mountains and I’m sure the struggle will be to keep this mindfulness when I re-enter UK society. That said, I’m positive. While I still have a bit of a distance to go, I’m well on the path to being unaffected by jealousy.

5. The word- petrichor

I have my fellow ALT, Eva, to thank for this lesson. The lesson came on an overcast Wednesday at the board of education. The doors and windows were open to soften the thick humidity that hung in the air. On the rare time that a breeze drifted through the office, rain started to fall and we both looked up and smiled. 

Rainy season means lots of petrichor

‘I love the smell of rain on the floor’ I sighed, inarticulately. To which Eva replied with the definition- petrichor. It took me a few (6) repeats from Eva to glue the word into my head but it’s there now and not going anywhere.  

Petrichor: noun, the smell produced when rain falls on dry ground, usually experienced as being pleasant.

6. Thumbs-down in Japan is swearing

Who knew? Definitely not me! 

While the thumbs-up has the same meaning of good/ great in Japan, it turns out that thumbs-down does not simply mean the opposite. Oh no, in Japan putting your thumb down to someone is literally telling them that something is sh*t or that you’re telling them to f*ck off. 

I learnt this the hard way. The hard way being, putting your thumb down to classes upon classes of 6-12-year-old Japanese children for the better half of two years before having someone explain why the kids were laughing. Oopsie. 

7. My mood changes with the weather

Unlike my accidental swearing, I’ve sort of known about this for a while now. I’m starting to think that the British phrase ‘face like thunder’ was written solely for my benefit. It brings to light the idea that mood and weather are more closely linked than we’d originally think.

This year I’ve learned that’s definitely the case with me. Nothing gets me down more than a gloomy, rainy overcast day and nothing pulls me out of a slump more quickly than a sunny day! This is something I want to work on this year, so that I have more control over my moods. 

One area that I’m struggling to control is the effect of the moon on my sleep. I’ve noticed a difference in my ability to sleep at a full moon. I’m usually restless and struggle to get to sleep and it turns out, it’s not just me. Underworld 6 anyone?

8. Plants are boss

I used to see those people with pictures of flowers on their insta and think BASICCCCC; until I looked a little closer into plants and flowers. They’re beautiful and have so many different meanings plus they breath out oxygen!

Having live plants and fresh flowers in the house has become my new norm and it’s something I’m going to keep doing when I get back to the UK.

Honestly, I think one of the reasons that I shunned plants was because everything I tried to grow died. I felt rejected by the plantverse and decided to reject it back. It’s all changed now! I’m currently sustaining the life of THREE tomato plants and a purple-flowered plant. The tomato plant has even given me edible tomatoes! Quite the turnaround. 

My tomato babies

9. People will disappoint you

When I say people, I mean anyone. It applies to people close to you and even people you might’ve hailed as superheroes. It’s sad but true. 

The reason is that people aren’t NPC characters in your life story, they’re the heroes of their own and so they aren’t set on meeting your expectations. People have their own interpretations, priorities and histories and, as sad and deflating as it can be, they are probably going to let you down.

I’ve been disappointed by people quite a lot this year and it’s mainly come from a lack of support. The most pain came from the people I least expected, people that I never expected could, or would, disappoint me. But they did. And they probably will do again. 

Is it because these people are horrible and evil? No. People letting you down doesn’t have to be the catastrophe it feels like at first. Instead, it can be a reminder that nobody is perfect and so you don’t have to be either. This helps, especially when you realise that you are excluded in the disappointing- you’ll disappoint people too and, again, that’s alright. Being let down reminds us that we aren’t at the centre of the universe and, most importantly, it’s an opportunity to support ourselves.

Who’s the person there to catch you when you fall? When your friend is ignorant, you don’t get an invite, your boyfriend has you questioning your worth or someone you trusted breaks that trust? It’s you, every time. You’re there with a safety net before anyone else. That means you always have someone to lean on when things are difficult. 

Image from Unsplash

When it comes to disappointment, you have your own tolerance. I understand the negative effects of having someone let you down, but my only advice would be to pause. As I said, no one is perfect, so make sure that you aren’t judging them too harshly. Breathe before you act and think back to a time when this person made you feel good. If you struggle to remember, then maybe it’s time to take some space. 

“That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

-Arundhati Roy

10. Sunrise is worth waking up early for

This year has had quite a lot of sleepless nights and disturbed mornings. I’ve often found myself awake at 4am from a bad dream and unable to get back to sleep. As is in my nature and the nature of this blog, I chose to look at the bright side (and what’s brighter than the sun?)

I love my morning mountain walks

I’ve found myself at my most peaceful, contemplative, humble and grateful as I stand staring at the sun creeping over the craggy outline of the mountains.

For anyone feeling overwhelmed, alone or unable to think- set tomorrow’s alarm early and get out somewhere with a good view. Watching the night burn away into quiet morning is spectacular and it brings clarity. 

11. Long-distance can work

I’ve always feared long-distance and never really liked it and, to be honest, I still don’t like it. But after managing to maintain a connection with friends from home, uphold friendship with my Illinoisian Legolas across the miles as well as bonding with a three-legged cat without touching him, I’ve learnt that long distance can be done. 

Take Murphy, my three (and a half) legged cat who visits me most days for food. I, of course, oblige and cat food is now a regular addition to my shopping list. Despite this consistent opportunity for bonding, Murphy is shy. He has this game where he runs over to my door and then acts surprised that I’m at the door, despite seeing me open the door, hisses and turns around sprinting to the shed, where his food bowl is conveniently placed.

I started trying to bridge the distance and almost had him hand-fed, until he panicked and scratched me. In Murphy’s case, I decided that the distance was better. When I leave Japan, it’ll be easier for him to return to life without me. BRB- sobbing at the thought of saying goodbye to my stray cat. 

A more conventional example of long-distance is my friendship with Keilyn in Chicago. We became really close during her time in Japan and have kept the fire burning since she headed home. We call pretty regularly and chat politics, films, men, feminism and vegan recipes. She knows me so well and has a keen sense of when I need her the most. She sends the best care packages too- full to the brim with vegan food! 

Long-distance can work- but it takes communication and effort. It’s easy to forget someone once you put the phone down or slide their messenger bubble away, but it’s crucial that you don’t. Remember and consider the other person, finding new ways to show you care. After having multiple long-distance experiences (with varying degrees of success) I’ve been able to gather some tips. Let me know if you’d be interested in reading about it in the future!

Love you Keilyn!

12. I don’t have gum disease

This lesson came as one of my biggest reliefs and for good reason. Like most people, I wasn’t a big fan of the dentist. After being a regular at the orthodontist for FIVE YEARS (yes, I had braces for the entirety of my highschool life) I was all dental-healthed out. 

Going to the dentist ended up being a time to fear and eventually, I just stopped going. As always happens with avoidance, the fear didn’t go away, it just moved. After a couple of years without a dentist visit, I became convinced that my teeth were going to fall out. I’d even have the occasional nightmare about it. But by that point, I was so worried about my teeth that the thought of going to the dentist now was impossible. 

Then came Mr Akiyama. My conversation class student and dentist. After class one day he invited me to visit his Practice, I took a big girl breath and agreed to go.

It was FINE!

In fact, I enjoyed myself. Having some time to sit and relax was nice. Mr Akiyama was sweet and explained everything, he even showed me what plaque looks like through a telescope (interesting and a little gross).

The best news is that my worries are over. I didn’t have gum disease, my teeth weren’t about to fall out and in fact they were pretty healthy. I got rid of some staining with a standard scrape and polish AND learnt that the dentist’s office is not one of the layers of hell to be avoided at all costs. So thank you Mr. Akiyama for your lesson! 

13. There are some amazing people in the world

Even in smothering darkness, there is always light and the darkness can even help you to truly appreciate the light. It’s kind of like Japanese fireflies. You need to go to a place of total darkness to see their meditative pulsing light and when you do, you forget the surrounding darkness. You just breathe in and appreciate their presence.

I’ve been blessed with an abundance of light this year.

Some of these hotaru have been here all along. My family for one, especially my sister and my mum, have been amazing. When no one else understands I can find comfort knowing that my sister and my mum will. They know what I’m going through and if they don’t know, they try their hardest to understand. They’re also the only people I know who can speak with the least tact and the most comfort at the same time. 

Rachel- we need some new pictures

Another taken-for-granted gem is Rachel. My best friend since nursery has been here consistently; sending memes, signing on for a virtual workout session or getting just as upset as me (if not more) about the latest disaster in my life.

Keilyn and the supportive hub of my friends in Kagoshima have really raised the bar for my expectations in friendship. They’re capable, considerate and the effort they make never has me doubting my importance in their life- something that isn’t the case with all of my friends.

Then there’s Ste. He’s been there through my worst moments and in his own gentle way, made me feel like everything is going to be alright. He can be an absolute buffoon at times, don’t get me wrong, but if someone is willing to fly across the world to make sure you’re ok, they’re doing something right.

Another person who will always have a great influence on my life is my dad. With every day that passes and every memory I excavate from my mind I realise more and more how much he influenced my life. That age-old saying that you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it, is true. So for anyone reading, take this chance to appreciate your family, be they biological or hand-picked- either way, they’re irreplaceable.  

14. I can be a little hard on myself

This lesson isn’t new to me. My first inkling was in high school, studying for my GCSE’s. My mum came into my room and as I looked up to talk to her, my nose started bleeding like I was possessed. She argued with me to take a break, which I begrudgingly agreed to do.

Pushing yourself is good, it gets things done, but this year I’ve realised that it has its limit. I’m still navigating the balance of self-care and productivity but I’m getting there, slowly!

Is this THE definition of the saying, feast or famine?

15. Positivity is not passive

This blog has always been about positivity. The reason is that I think we need positivity, not just so we can all paint pictures of rainbows and sing nursery rhymes. We need it to battle the dark stuff- the depression, loneliness, the overwhelm, the suicidal thoughts, everything. In so many ways, we need positivity to survive.

As I walk my own path to positivity, I’m learning more about it. With the well-needed rise in attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, questions of what makes a good person have come to the forefront of our minds. One thing that I’ve realised is that it doesn’t stop at niceness. Positivity isn’t passive.

To make friendships work you need to do more than smile when you see someone, you need to get in touch and arrange to meet, or check in. When you see someone struggling, it isn’t enough to feel bad for them or say that you’d never put them in that position, you need to actively help them. When you exist in a world of established racism, you need to do more than say that it’s terrible, that you’d never do anything like that. You need to take action against it.

I learned that positivity is active against negativity, not necessarily the absence of it. It takes work and it isn’t always pretty, but it is always necessary. As I turn 23 I’m continuing my fight for positivity so that if nothing else, I leave the world a slightly brighter place than it was when I found it. 

Positivity travels in ripples

16. You can’t control the feelings of other people, so don’t let them control yours

This lesson is a painful one for anyone who has yet to learn it, or re-learn it. It’s difficult to face, but it is simple. 

No matter how much you want someone to think or feel a certain way, you can’t control it. This kind of links back to my lesson on disappointment. You can definitely try to control it and you might even think it’s working, but it isn’t or it won’t be for long anyway.

If you want someone to care about you like you care about them, the sad truth is that there’s not much you can do. And when you’re upset by someone, don’t expect your actions to impact them as their’s did to you, that isn’t always the case either.

When someone upsets you, you want them to understand how they made you feel, usually by making them feel the same. I get it, I’ve been there. But doing this is like starting a fire, it’s so difficult to control. The fire might immediately snuff out and they don’t feel bad at all, leaving you frustrated. Or it could catch and spread, causing more damage than you intended. One thing that’s sure is that you aren’t going to feel better. 

You are your own mountain

So, if that’s the case, why let other people influence your feelings? It isn’t fair, right? Right. So don’t!

This is a lesson I’m still learning and I know that once I do, I’m going to be better off. Now I’m not saying just ghost every single person who has the ability to make you feel bad. But if someone is making you feel bad, taking a step back and questioning their role in your life really helps.

Someone else’s problems aren’t yours. And girlies, there’s nothing romantic about a ‘fixer-upper’ despite what the mainstream narrative will tell you. Control what you can control- yourself. Just work on fixing yourself up and don’t put your self-improvement progress at risk!

17. I’m pretty fit

When I say fit, I mean it in every sense of the word.

My appearance has always been a problem spot for me. I’d wonder if I was pretty enough, analyse my flaws and started to hate them. I’d call myself some horrible names and put myself down constantly. I couldn’t take a compliment and couldn’t believe that people would find me attractive. 

The difficulty of my 22nd year of life has meant that I’ve been a lot more focused on myself and making myself feel alright. I’ve had countless de-stress baths, facemasks and makeup-detox days. Then, when we needed to wear masks for COVID I decided to cut makeup out of my daily routine and started to get used to my face without it. With the time I saved not doing my makeup, I introduced a facial routine that focused on getting my skin healthy rather than making it look ‘good’. 

Please enjoy my mascara-only face

This alongside cutting out fizzy drinks and upping my amount of exercise has meant that my face and body are starting to get better. I’m getting more comfortable with myself which is making self-love a LOT easier. 

Plus, if you can show your naked face and body to a load of strangers in a Japanese onsen, you should be comfortable with yourself right? Just like many of these lessons, I think it’s one that I will need to relearn plenty of times, it’s a steep slope to self-acceptance and loving how you look is just one step towards it.

18. The unknown is scary

If leaving a job, my home of two years, amazing friends and my own house behind wasn’t hard enough, I’m doing it in the midst of a global pandemic! It’s putting it lightly to say that there are lots of unknowns in my life right now. I’m so scared of what my life will be like when I return to the UK.

That’s the thing though, it’s the unknown and the unknown is scary for most people. We’re scared of the dark because we don’t know what’s in front of us, scared of death because we don’t know what happens to us. The unknown works this way because it’s a gap in our comprehension and our brain tries to fill that gap with whatever it can.

I have been filling my fear gap with worries of unemployment, homelessness and all sorts. When, in reality, I have a great support system waiting for me in the UK and that support system is one of the reasons I decided to come home. 

This year I’ve had a lot of unknowns in my life and I’ve learnt that it’s a scary thing. But also that anxiety’s sister is excitement and that if I work hard enough I can fill the fear gap with ideas and opportunities.

19. Alone time is essential

My solitary lifestyle has gotten me very used to my own company. I’ve been able to mooch around the house naked, play music at any time, do whatever I want to and most importantly, I know that when I come home I’m going to be able to unwind. While there are some definite benefits to living with company, this time I’ve spent solo has taught me that whatever my situation, I need to spend some time alone.  

Alone time is essential for my mental health. It means I can analyse events of the day and use them to improve. I can be myself and, from spending quality time in my own company, love myself. Being alone also means that I can fully wind down, without worrying about what other people are thinking or doing. Instead, it’s just me and the environment that I’ve created for myself. 

Everyone needs some time alone

I think this is a lesson that everyone would find useful. Being alone is usually a scary concept and we sometimes make decisions or allow behaviours to avoid it. Embracing being alone takes that fear away and lets you

20. Exercise isn’t just for the body

I’ve talked about this a lot in my Golden Triangle posts. It’s something we all know, but we don’t really KNOW. Like yeah, we know that exercising releases serotonin, but we don’t really consider it as a stress buster until we’ve felt the benefits.

My decision to get serious about fitness has taught me a lot of lessons. I’ve learnt a bit about the science of the body, tips for exercise as well as some psychology. This lesson has come as a pretty big aid to one of my hardest years, helping me to keep my mind in as good a condition as possible.

21. Trauma is a stubborn get

Don’t worry, I’m not about to delve into the details of my trauma here, for one, there are too many incidents to talk about and it’d take too long. Woop #traumatised. But I will say that the trauma of losing my dad while I was away in Japan has definitely made a mark. When it comes to grief, you can only brace yourself so much, and when it comes out of nowhere, there’s not a lot you can do. 

In trying to keep myself at functioning level I did a fair bit of reading on trauma and what I read was pretty helpful. I’m happy to share my resources with anyone who’d find them useful! 

Amongst other things I learnt that you can be re-traumatised, that it isn’t always the event that traumatises you but people’s reaction (or lack of). I learnt that trauma isn’t always met with understanding and sympathy and most importantly that trauma can stick around for a long time- it’s stubborn af. 

Luckily for me- I’m stubborn too! I’m going to get through it and plough on because I want to. I don’t want to be affected by the trauma any more and I know that with some more time and research, I won’t be.

For anyone else struggling with trauma, I’m here for you. I know that it’s hard and it can be difficult for people who haven’t been through it to understand. But your strength is unique and beautiful, you’re endurance is admirable and your existence in this world as a traumatised person is essential- you are hope.

22. Nothing is guaranteed

Another one I’m learning the hard way and I think a lot of people are learning this lately. Nothing is guaranteed. Your job, the health and happiness of loved ones, even your own breath isn’t guaranteed. It seems pretty morbid but it’s that lack of certainty that gives it its value. The fleeting beauty of Japanese sakura is a famous example of this. We value those pink blossoms so much not because they’re pretty, there are lots of pretty flowers, but because they are finite. 

Loss and change are hard, but they’re some of the few things in life that are certain. I’ve learnt that instead of resisting it, of trying to control the uncontrollable, I need to work on being more patient and more flexible. I need to get better at adapting so when changes happen, I’m ready with a plan B, C and D. 

23. I still have lots to learn 

My final lesson is one of humility. As Michael Franti and Spearhead sing:

‘It seems like everywhere I go, the more I see, the less I know’ 

I’ve done so much in Japan, a lot of things that I didn’t even know where possible. And as I said in a previous post, it wasn’t Japan that did those things. It was me. I’m learning every day that I have so much more to learn.

I want to learn more about people, how I interact with life, how I can be a more positive influence in the world, how to create a safe space, how to improve my relationships, how to cook better, develop skills, get fitter, read more books, see more places… I’m learning about the adventure that is life and how I have so much further to go. 

Shiragadake, 20.6.20

What lessons have you learnt this year and are you glad you learnt them? 

Stay Positive,

Love,

Jess x

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