A Decade of Grown: Reflections on friendship, self-esteem, relationships and growth

This was the first decade of my life that I could legally do the following: drink, have sex, rent a car, enroll in graduate education, and take out a loan without my parent’s financial information. And I did all of the above. It was also a decade of immeasurable personal growth, painful setbacks, and extraordinary new adventures. With New Year’s Day come and gone and my birthday fast approaching, if I could tell myself anything as the clock struck midnight on December 31, 2009, when I was fresh out of university embarking on the world, it would be the following:

You Are Responsible for Everyone in Your Personal Life

A TedTalk entitled “Why 30 isn’t the new 20” discusses the importance of your “chosen family.” About being decisive in whom we have around us. As you grow, that doesn’t mean everyone can and should grow with you. One of the most painful parts of maturing is when you realize you mature past your friendships and romantic relationships that you thought would last forever. You can love people and begin to recognize that you’re no longer in-sync. This was one of the hardest things for me to learn and understand. As someone who heavily relied on chosen family all of my adult life, not having a stable traditional family to rely on, I am fiercely loyal. Any dissolution of friendship to me was the ultimate betrayal. If we were friends, nothing could tear us apart. For me, friends now means friends forever, near and far, always in each other’s hearts. In my young and at times overzealous mind, this was noble. In reality, this yielded two unfortunate results: when there were people whose lives moved in different directions, I lashed out and burned bridges I shouldn’t have; and more regrettably I kept people in my life that became cancerous.

I’ll blend friends to illustrate this example, but all of the ensuing are true. Imagine having a friend that was your best friend, that you spoke to this person daily from your teen years onward, and who began to exhibit signs of jealousy when you let other people into your life? Imagine a friend who weaponized information you told them in confidence and used it to cut you when they felt insecure? Imagine a friend with a significant other who mocked your eating habits and personal life, and your friend stood by and did nothing to intervene? And said friend isn’t in an abusive relationship, her significant other is simply a belligerent [a]hole beyond measure. Imagine a friend who completely blows something out of context and refuses to listen to rhyme or reason, and creates a dynamic in your friend group that forces people to choose company? Lastly, and my personal favorite: a friend who refuses to give an unqualified apology. Someone who can’t just say, “I’m sorry,” even when the circumstances unequivocally dictate they should. And imagine tolerating with this behavior…because you’re friends. If one is in their late twenties/early thirties, and you’ve been friends with someone since the word “teen” was attached to your age, you have indisputably been friends with them for one third if not half of your entire life. Life without them is jarring and to lose them is a jilt to your soul. That’s not something of a simple disregard.

But what else can we not disregard? Our self-worth. Our dignity. Our mental health. Our joy. No one should be in your personal life that doesn’t make you a happier person. Directly or by proxy. This is non-negotiable. We cannot control our biological relations, but we can control who our friends are. We can control, as Dr. Meg Jay says, our chosen family. I am not saying don’t utilize conflict resolution and simply walk away from people at the first sign of trouble. Friends should be able to confront one another about platonic transgressions. But there also comes a point of acknowledging and accepting established patterns of behavior, and when someone clearly doesn’t want to change and doesn’t think they should.

A quick illustration is as follows: I had a volatile and toxic “platonic” relationship with a gay male friend named “Kevin” for five years. After reflection, I realized he and I relied on one another in ways that neither of us were willing to admit. He is hypermasculine and revels in the opportunity of asserting traditional gender roles and I was recently wounded from a string of hurtful experiences and wanted male companionship that wouldn’t use and later discard me after sex. As Howie Day once said, “we collide[d].” Kevin was one of the most emotionally manipulative men I have ever met in my life, and I trapped myself in his sordid orbit. I tried reasoning and conflict resolution off-and-on with Kevin for years. After feeling gutted and being utterly humiliated by Kevin for the last time, I reached my breaking point and cut him out of my life. But I should have done it so much sooner. Kevin didn’t bring me joy and there was no reason for me to allow him to dim my shine as long as he did. Kevin hasn’t changed and doesn’t want to. I should’ve accepted that at the first sign of trouble, and focused my energy on self-care and better chosen family.

So a piece of advice to myself at twenty one, when I knew some of the friends mentioned and had yet to meet others: realizing that you’ve changed, that your friends have changed, or that you’re no longer compatible with one another isn’t disloyalty. It’s honesty. You owe that to yourself and everyone around you. Ending friendships is done with grace, kindness and respect. Treasure every memory you have with these individuals and the joy that they once brought into your life. But don’t let that blind your judgment and prevent you from becoming the best version of yourself. Just because someone isn’t your friend the way they once were, it doesn’t mean they once weren’t the best friend you ever had. But just because they were once the best friend you ever had, doesn’t mean that they need to be your friend forever.

Haters are Real — Cracking Armour

Haters are real. And I hope everyone in the back of the Apollo Theater heard me.

In many ways, they are the way we remember them from high school. When people would accomplish and achieve goals, there was always a Negative Nancy who took pride in taking take them down. Or that special hater, who makes people feel bad about doing something they love. That person is still alive, they graduated, and continued this behavior. Anyone who makes someone feel bad about being happy should burn in a supernatural purgatory, but that’s not my point.

It’s unfortunate, and I personally believe more pronounced in women (misogyny will do that to you), but there are people who genuinely don’t want others to succeed. There are people who genuinely resent your intelligence, your ambition, your creativity and your strength. This is always a reflection of the individual and not the object of attention. These people literally hate your greatness and every manifestation of it.

I’m an attorney. Before I was an attorney, I was a university student. Before that, I was a high school student enrolled in Advanced Placement and honors classes. And before that, I was a child who liked to watch the news, who learned to read with Hooked on Phonics and the Sweet Valley High series. You’d be surprised (maybe some less so), how many people remarked in my life, “you’re so well-spoken.” Not only is the remark micro-aggressive on a racial and socioeconomic level, but it’s often said with antagonism. It begs the question, how am I supposed to speak? And what is that predicated upon? And I want to make something clear: I don’t think intellectualism is linked with formal education. I had ignorant law professors who are Yale graduates and I have Einstein-like friends who never enrolled in university. With that being said, in order to practice law in the United States, you must read and retain copious amounts of information, in some form or another. It’s axiomatic of this exercise that one may remember the concepts they’ve learned and apply them to the world in which they live.

Even more insidious, I’ve had experiences where I use a word, correctly, that people felt the need to repeat and mock because for an odd, insecure, or juvenile reason. As if I shouldn’t use a word that’s in my vocabulary. Which again begs the question: am I not supposed to be articulate? What words am I supposed to use? Am I not supposed to read? Am I not supposed to better myself intellectually in this journey of life? And why would it bother anyone that I do? How small are you, as a human being, that you resent that I can express myself in a multitude of ways? And for Christ's sake, if you’re typing on a computer, you can right-click on a word to see synonyms. Thesaurus.com and dictionary.com are free, people.

It’s not just vocabulary. I am a proud alumna (despite our recent scandals) of the University of Southern California, home to many extraordinary students who come from various backgrounds, as well as the mighty Trojans. I’ve been in situations where I’ve worn my university apparel, and people looked me straight in the face and said, “you didn’t go to USC.” Mind you, I’m still paying off my student loans. Or, people say with disdain, “OH YOU WENT TO USC,” like it’s an epithet. I won’t dwell on the fact that I have white and Asian friends who graduated from USC, and no one has ever said this to them. One of my personal favorites is, “people only go there for football and that’s all USC is good at.” It’s important to note that USC is one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the United States and it’s also highly ranked. And while university football is a big part of campus life, as with all Division-One schools, USC is top ranked in almost all of its academic programs in the nation. By some studies, in the world.

But I’m not here to brag about USC. I’m here to question why is it so outlandish that I could’ve attended the institution? And why would anyone, other than someone who attended UCLA, be bothered by it? Nevermind the unabashed audacity of meeting someone at an event or walking up to them in a mall (both have happened) and to tell them that they didn’t attend their alma mater. It’s jarring, insulting, and just downright bizarre. But the question is, why?

Why didn’t I attend USC? You obviously didn’t because if you did we’d have mutual friends. Why do you feel the need to tell me that you think USC only excels in sports? Aside from the fact that it’s simply untrue, what’s your main goal? To diminish the academic achievements of the school? Because goodness forbid I be affiliated with smart people? And for the love of god, how in the hell can you walk up to someone in their alma mater’s apparel and insist that they didn’t attend the institution? What is literally wrong with you?

The lesson I’d give to younger Olorunbunmi? Haters are real, sweetie. As my friend Caroline brilliantly says, “Yes, I can see someone trying to crack your armor.” It’s a whole special category of pathetic that someone feels the need to diminish the accomplishments of someone else. It’s a sign of insecurity and jealousy. You will meet these people at work, in social circles, graduate education, and in clothing stores. If you listen to the individual very carefully, you’ll realize they’re not talking about you. Your greatness is a manifestation of who your are, their resentment and anger towards it is a manifestation of who they are. Keep shining.

Stop Breaking Your Own Heart By Exaggerating Your Place in Other People’s Lives

I read this on an image quote on Facebook, the bastion of all great wisdom. Nevertheless, it cut me in my soul. It was an epiphany that made me realize much of my own heartache was my fault. Growth is always painful, especially when you realize you’re the problem.

I was serving in the U.S. Peace Corps when I saw this, from which I only recently returned. Peace Corps is an interesting and traumatic experience which I’ll write about in more detail another time. But it’s a place of shifting relationships and friendships. Who you were dating at the beginning is likely not who you’re dating at the end. People enter Peace Corps engaged and leave in different relationships. Your best friend from “Day One” isn’t always the person holding your hand as you leave the country. And all of this change makes you vulnerable, in an already stressful environment.

I lived about twenty minutes from my friend “Sean”, which is a rarity in any Peace Corps country. Mind you, we were both people of color, in a predominantly white Easter European Peace Corps country. I visited Sean, even during our probationary period when I was socializing with a family who lived in his village. Of course I invited him. I visited Sean several times after, we were only twenty minutes apart. Sean initially promised to visit me, that we would be de-facto site-mates, and I realized that would never materialize. He made these promises and then flatly refused. I repeatedly argued with Sean about visiting me, who lived close enough that I walked there to train for a marathon. And let’s be clear: this wasn’t a romantic issue. I have no interest in Sean. But Peace Corps makes you desperate for even platonic human affection. In retrospect, I wanted Sean to visit me because despite my vocalized frustrations with my experience, I was hurting and needed interpersonal support that a phone call wouldn’t satiate. One day I read “stop breaking your own heart by exaggerating your place in other people’s lives” and it dawned upon me: Sean didn’t visit me because Sean didn’t care. Sean wasn’t being a mean person, isn’t a mean person, and I had no right to hold ill will against him. Sean simply didn’t give a damn enough to get on the bus and make sure I was ok. Sean didn’t think I was worth the $.50 of American money by way of the conversion for a check-in. I wasn’t worth the effort for Saturday morning tea.

Now I understand the problem isn’t Sean and it never was. The problem is that I led myself to believe I was important enough in Sean’s life to make an effort for anything. And that’s no one’s fault but my own. Sean’s repeated refusals should have taught me that our friendship wasn’t on the same wavelink.

Many of us get hurt not because people intend or even want to hurt us, we get hurt because we refuse to see the signs that are in front of us that people don’t care about us in the way we care about them. Platonically and romantically. I’m the type of friend that would sit on a bus for two hours each way, on a bumpy road, wearing a back brace, to have lunch in the capital with my friend and her visiting boyfriend. Which I did, for my friend Rebecca. Rebecca, someone who held my hand at the beginning and end of my experience. But it’s not about scorecards. It’s about the fact that Rebecca and I held the same place in each other’s lives. I mean as much to her as she means to me. And that’s where my energy should be.

There’s an adage of “killing ’em with kindness,” but true kindness takes effort. And although it’s axiomatic that kindness shouldn’t be given with the expectation of something in return, it’s also unhealthy to expend energy on those who genuinely don’t care that you’re doing so. And after reflecting on that one experience, I reflected on many others. How many times was someone, a man in my life, a friend, even a family member, telling me through their actions that I simply didn’t hold the same place in their heart that they held in mine? I foolishly gave them energy that I should’ve saved for myself and others. I won’t deny I did a brief tally, but I have no interest in recalling them all in this moment.

A piece of advice I would give to my younger self — be open with your love and share it — it’s the only way to live. But for those who don’t love and appreciate it, spend less energy loving them, and more wishing them well, sending them on their way, and focus on those who do appreciate you. Focus on those whose place in their lives is no exaggeration — it’s central to their heart.

Loving Yourself Means Recognizing Your Own Self-Harm and Becoming Responsible for Your Own Healing

I dated douchebags from my teens to my early twenties. Objective douchebags. Why? I could say it was because they were confident, cool, and the ones that asked me out. Things that are true in some respect. But the larger picture? I had dangerously low self-esteem, and I was so desperate for validation I accepted any type of attention that a man was willing to give me. They were there and gave me a scintilla of attention, and that was enough. Today, it literally makes me cringe and I suppress bile when I think of the things that I put up with. And there was literally no redeeming benefit from it.

None.

But why had I dated so many jerks? And how had they found me? As the proverb goes, we attract what we are. I was someone who had a figurative “I don’t love myself” neon sign across my forehead, and it was evident through my actions. As a result, men who had no interest in respecting another human being flocked to me like a moth to a flame, knowing they could use me in some capacity and discard me at their choosing. And what’s worse is, I let them.

At the end of a turbulent dating year a few years back, I started off with an extraordinary gentleman with whom I was unfortunately mismatched (I wish him well in all he does, and we’re still friends), and by June was dating a complete jerk that literally argued with me over my hair products lightly staining his clothes. I realized, “Olorunbunmi, many of these men are indisputably jerks. But the one thing they all have in common is you. Maybe you should stop seeking any and all male attention until you figure out the heck why.” At the time, it was the biggest self-slap in the face I’d ever given myself, but certainly and the last.

It was a hard and painful discovery, but of the limited sexual experience I have, I retraced my steps as to how that came to be, and why I ever began having sex. I now know: I never thought I was beautiful and believed a man sleeping with me would affirm my beauty. This essay is not for the myriad of factors that contributed to my minuscule measure of self-worth, but in my not-so-fully developed brain, sex equaled love and worth. In reality, sex means many things. It does not mean commitment. What I now know is that if I had believed in even the slightest essence of who I was, or had a strong enough foundation that encouraged me, every romantic decision from fourteen onward would’ve been different.

There are few things more sobering in life than realizing you are the source of your own problems, because you’re the variable in every equation. Nothing will change unless you do. Self-reflection in all aspects of your life is one of the most important things you’ll ever do. Did you not get a promotion because of favoritism? Or did you not work as hard as the other individual? The answer is the former, the latter, or somewhere in-between. But unless you take the time to sort yourself and figure it out, everyone around you is done a disservice.

My advice to young Olorunbunmi: as the poem goes, you in so many ways are the captain of your fate and the master of your soul. Don’t let little people have power over your heart or anything else. Believe in yourself enough to know that you don’t need validation from anyone who doesn’t truly love you as you are, and for who you are.

A Wrap Up

After a decade I could write a novel on the things I would’ve told my younger self, but this a sufficient start. What else should she know? Definitely not to take the advice of the person who is screaming the loudest, they just like the sound of their own voice. Don’t let people dissuade you from your dreams because they don’t think they’re feasible: that’s a sign of their limitations, not your own. Never spend too much energy on people you don’t like: negative attention is still attention. Process your feelings at your own pace, learn from all the experiences you can, and always keep moving forward. Literally only moving one inch per day is still progress. More than anything, just be the happy person you intrinsically are, and don’t let anyone stand in your way. Just like nobody puts Baby in a corner, don’t let anyone steal your sunshine.

Photographed by J. Anika @anika.artistry

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Olorunbunmi

Olorunbunmi

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These are my reflections on this journey of life and how (sometimes) we can navigate it better. With candor, love and humo(u)r.