looking for direction? ask what your 10-year-old self would do

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Photo: My cousin Taylor and I being entrepreneurial with our blue lemonade and blue yogurt pies. Miss you always.

This is certainly not an original idea (are there any?), but it's one that has helped guide me many times, especially recently. Are you struggling to figure out what your passion or purpose is? Or, perhaps you have so many that it’s hard to land on any one thing long enough to gain momentum, and you don’t know how to narrow your focus?

Just ask what your 10-year-old self would enjoy doing.

In the past year or so, I was doing this before I even explicitly realized it. I sheepishly dipped my toes into the metaphysical realm, exploring crystals, energy, the Tarot, flower essences, etc. At first, I felt a little embarrassed about my interest in these areas since I tend to consider myself an educated skeptic, and also because the whole Bohemian hippie thing is really “in” right now and I didn’t want to think I’d just jump on the bandwagon of whatever is popular just to be "cool."

But the fact is, 10-year-old Valerie would have loved the shit out of all this stuff.*

And when I was 10 — sure, I had plenty of insecurities and flaws — but I was unapologetically ME. I was witty, creative, and I didn’t believe my potential was limited. I loved fairies and gemstones and anything sparkly. I loved reading and writing stories. I was a novice cellist, good at math, and obsessed with singing. I believed I was creative and had a lot to offer. I believed my body could do really cool things (like gymnastics!).

Sure, I wasn’t free of anxieties of fears. I’d worry that the boy I liked wouldn’t like me back, or that my friends liked each other more than me** — but my inner critic didn’t yet have the power to stop me from doing the things I loved.

Then, slowly, I started growing up, and little-by-little, losing that clarity of what made me come alive.

I only played the cello for a year (don’t even get me started on that; my school had limited electives and I regret not having chosen orchestra over choir), and I never followed my aspirations of acting because I didn’t start theatre by my freshman year and then told myself I was already “too late." My attempts to actually perform as a singer (outside of my bedroom or car) came in fits and starts “because no one wants just a vocalist” and I didn’t play an instrument, or genuinely care enough to learn one because my musical passion thus far has really just been singing.

In the past year, I have been more committed to my own personal growth journey than ever. I’m a voracious reader of self-development books, and spend most of my 2-hour-a-day commute listening to podcasts in that realm. One of the best pieces of wisdom that I’ve taken and applied to my own life is that, if you want clarity on how you should be living, look back and consider what you would have enjoyed doing at age 10, and there’s a good chance you’ll love doing something similar now.

Of course, it’s not advice to be followed 100% literally, as otherwise I’d be sitting around watching Ghost Writer, reading Baby-Sitter’s Club books, belting out Alanis on my karaoke machine, and eating Little Debbies all day long. On second thought, that sounds pretty great. But my husband would probably start to worry about getting the bills paid. So, it’s not about being literal, but rather, looking at the kinds of things you enjoyed back then and seeing how you could have more of them in your life now. Thus far, almost all the things I’ve loved doing more of are all things that my 10-year-old self also loved.

I’m singing in a band. I wear glittery eyeshadow and dye my hair bright colors. I wear Lisa Frank headphones (like right now). I write and tell stories and jokes. I eat ice cream almost every day. (ok that’s definitely not new) I get excited about learning about and trying new things, both practical and “magical” (anything with an air of whimsy!) I hang out with girlfriends and have a great time talking for hours on end. I go on adventures, like today when I hiked with my husband into what felt like a “hidden trail” in our neighborhood to a “secret pond” and got drenched in rain on the way home. I play games with my friends, like Dungeons & Dragons, am reminded of my favorite live-action role-play game from when I was 7 or 8 years old, and promptly find and buy it on eBay (then warn my friends they will be coming over soon to play a child’s game from 1993 with a unicorn on the box.)

I won’t delude you or myself that I do these things all the time. In fact, I’m usually pretty boring. But I have seen that the more that I intentionally challenge myself to integrate 10-year-old-Val activities into my life, the more alive and more “me” I feel. And it can apply far beyond hobbies or activities, all the way to what you want to do with your life professionally. At around 10, I was already filling out guided journals and reading Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul and other books that were the equivalent of self-development for kids. By 12, I had started my own girls-only online club, Shimmer Gurl. Not far jumps to my current job, working with groups of women on their healing journey, and writing online to share my passions and expand my reach.

If you want to feel more alive in your day-to-day, or more clear on your “big picture” direction, try writing a letter from your 10-year-old self to you today, about all the thing you loved doing. Look at old photos of yourself and talk to parents, siblings, or friends who have known you since childhood. You may very well find the clarity or direction you’re looking for, and you’re damn-sure* to have fun in the meantime.

*My 10-year-old self would not have approved of the use of the words "shit" or "damn," but some things change, right?!

**I acknowledge that a lot of 10-year-olds have much bigger problems than this... but at that point in my life, the impact of an amicable divorce was about the most serious thing I had going on.

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.