Some experiences you can just call to your mind to be replayed, over and over again, like a favorite movie—or an annoying commercial. The first hour of my solo backpacking trip to Europe is one of those experiences for me.
Once all the official business of the first few minutes in a foreign country was handled, the real panic set in. Although I knew I had meticulously planned each stop of the trip, I suddenly felt completely unprepared. I hadn’t been practicing my German, and it had been three years since I’d last been in Europe. I didn’t know anyone on this continent, and I had no real plan for how I would go about the graduate school research I was ostensibly there to conduct. I had been so focused on planning the trip that I’d forgotten to actually prepare.
I sat on the floor of Berlin Tegel Airport for at least an hour, actually wondering if anyone would notice if I turned around and went home instead of going outside and trying to find my hostel. The not-so- friendly (but all too familiar) voice in my head was adamant that the trip would be a complete failure—I’d be miserable the entire time, I wouldn’t meet anyone friendly in my hostels, and I’d manage to mess up the academic work I was there to do.
Eventually, I forced myself to break the immense task at hand—two weeks on my own in Europe, with just the stuff on my back—into smaller, easier to manage missions. First up: find a map. Once I had that, it was relatively easy to figure out which bus I needed to get to the hostel. I remembered how to negotiate the German bus system from my semester abroad, so that was no big deal. About an hour later, I found myself safely in the lobby of the hostel, using the free Wi-Fi to celebrate my victory with friends back home. My laser focus had silenced both the fear and my nasty inner critic. Mission accomplished.
The rest of the trip followed a similar pattern—excitement, quickly morphing into complete overwhelm, solved by the division of incomprehensible challenges into manageable tasks, followed by excessive celebration. When I couldn’t solve a problem by breaking it down, or when I attempted and did not immediately succeed, I focused on giving myself grace, empathy, and forgiveness. I was, after all, completely alone. I was stuck hanging out with myself every second of every day for two weeks—if I was constantly upset at myself, internally scolding myself for every small mistake, like taking the train in the wrong direction or using the wrong German word, I was going to have a pretty lousy time.
So, for those two weeks, more than ever before, I treated myself as if I actually were my own best friend. I chose to speak to myself how I would speak to a friend in the same situation. Would I berate my friend for awkwardly fumbling through a foreign language encounter? Of course not. I would empathize with her, comfort her, and probably get her to see the humor in the situation. Why are we always the first to see the good in our friends, and the last to see it in ourselves?
It has now been over a year since this trip, and I’ve been reflecting on it a lot as I face the transitions and increasingly difficult adult decisions every twenty-something does. I remember feeling so good about myself for most of that trip, and it just occurred to me…what if I took the pattern that helped me so much during that trip and applied it to other areas of my life? What if I solved problems at work by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable pieces, and then celebrated the hell out of every little victory? What if the little stuff became the big stuff? What if a failure didn’t have to mean everything?
I realized that I didn’t need to go to Europe by myself to learn this lesson. I could have been giving myself permission to try and to fail, to give myself grace when things didn’t work out, for years. I could have been a lot happier.
So don’t wait for the big moments, the monumental trips and the weddings and the deaths, to teach yourself important lessons like this. Don’t let that negative voice we all have control your life like an ill-intentioned puppeteer any longer. Get out of your comfort zone and explore new opportunities in any way you can. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Take that boxing class you think you’re not fit enough for, go see a movie by yourself, flirt with the cute guy in Starbucks—do anything that you’ve always wanted to do, but never thought you could. You can. You will make plenty of mistakes, and every one of them will teach you something (or at least make you laugh).
It’s okay not to be perfect. In fact, it’s beautiful.