The five-year plan, with its smug emphasis on security and practical goal setting, long made me uncomfortable. Life often gets in the way, I’d say with sly or bitter irony, depending on how well things were going. But the five-year plan is really about internal motivation and growth. I spent most of my twenties planning goals based on external factors: the arrival of the future spouse, the job that would magically meet every professional aspiration without foresight into what those aspirations actually were.
As a result, I’ve spent years in positions that were, in some cases, bad fits. My marriage has taught me that a good fit is in fact nuanced; there are areas of our relationship that are complementary and others that require more compromise and effort. I’ve learned success isn’t about pursuing what we think we should be good at, or even what we want to be good at. It’s about how well we respond to challenges outside of our control. It’s about understanding the difference between who we want to be versus who we actually are.
I understood this concept better after reading a friend’s essay about their struggle to embrace yoga and meditation because they felt it would help their anxiety more than their preferred go to: a quality Netflix binge. To be sure, meditation is often misunderstood as a cure-all for what ails us. But we can’t force an interest in it, either. When we judge what is most meaningful to us through the lens of outside influence, whether by society or others’ opinions, we tend to pursue something that is not authentic to us.
This weekend reinforced that understanding. On Saturday I attended the Boston Book Festival. Upon arriving, however, I was more drawn to exploring a city I hadn’t been to in a decade than attending panels.
So I wandered Boylston Street, had a leisurely lunch, and attended a lecture later that afternoon.
After, I met with an old friend. When she mentioned applying to MSW programs, I felt a gut-punching chill. In my mid-twenties, I contemplated pursuing a graduate degree in counseling. My friend explained her attraction to writing was related to helping others. Now she aspired to work with immigrant populations as a counselor while potentially creating a program in writing therapy.
Again, my heart leapt. I also write in part to help others. This summer, I co-facilitated writing workshops for clients at a New York City mental health agency. I relayed the story of one client using the session to write grocery lists instead of following prompts. The experience raised questions about how to work with a variety of skill levels and competencies, the subsequent possibility of vetting clients based on their interest and capabilities, and the idea of working with a set, dedicated group over the course of several weeks to produce a polished piece.
“I feel like I don’t have the language or construct I need to create a meaningful writing program for people with mental illness,” I said. “A certification in counseling would provide that context.” We talked about how exciting it would be to create a program in therapeutic writing comprehensive enough to include the lay person. The next morning, I searched for programs in expressive arts therapy that emphasized writing, not just music or visual art.
My dream is to combine my passions for writing and mental health advocacy to help others, particularly couples with mental health issues, live with greater balance and clarity. Pursuing a degree in counseling with a certification in expressive arts therapy is now—voilà—part of a five-year plan. Along the way, I will continue to write and, more and more, celebrate who I actually am: an explorer who loves big cities, a wife, daughter, and friend, an unabashed consumer of pop culture, and a seeker interested in spirituality from all perspectives, including an atheistic one.
My new understanding applies to my professional life most. Last month, my position was eliminated due to institution-wide budget cuts. My anxiety is mixed with a sense of possibility, a clean slate, of trying something new. As I continue my job search, I am dedicated to finding a role as reflective of my identity as it is my skill set. Onward!