For many, if not all of us, change is hard. We can acknowledge that something doesn’t feel right or no longer serves us but we can’t seem to bring ourselves to make changes. Sometimes, I think that our inability to change or grow is actually because we are struggling to find ourselves in a vision that is clear enough to take the first steps forward.

I remember a distinct time in my life, the early to mid-’20s when I was feeling the most chaotic, ungrounded, and unrooted. I didn’t dare to face myself, and if I somehow managed to get the courage, I didn’t have a clue where or how to begin putting all the pieces together. Instead of dealing with my problems, I was numbing them with toxic relationships, risky adventures, parties, drugs, alcohol, and the other drama that came with it.

After a few years in that lifestyle, I started to feel that the highs of any experience, person, or substance weren’t lasting long enough to keep the truth at bay. At the highest point of my lowest moments, I would wake up with a gut-twisting feeling inside that was begging me to stop and pay attention to my life. I remember how the gut feeling would stay with me through the day. It came to work with me, it was in my relationship every time I looked at my partner, it was in my home every time I thought about my family, it was in my bank account, and it was especially in with me when I would try and party it away. Eventually, the hits got so loud and so disruptive I broke down in complete disbelief at the life I had created. Realizing that I wasn’t the victim anymore — I was an adult sabotaging my potential, dreams, and every precious breath I had on this planet.

When I made the conscious choice to focus on my healing, I was approaching my 25th birthday. I learned about nutrition, read tons of self-help and personal development books, started going to the gym and learn yoga, and I even enlisted support from a therapist. Things were changing slowly but the most difficult changes were still ahead of me. I still had to end many of the relationships I was in, figure out what the hell I was going to do for a career, and kick the party lifestyle and substance abuse that went with it. There was so much work to do; I was anxious and overwhelmed. I didn’t know who would replace my old self. I didn’t have a vision for my life. And every day, I kept asking myself — Who am I? What do I want?

Questions like that are difficult at first because we’re not encouraged to think deeply about what we want, how we want to live our lives, and who we want to become. They are BIG questions. So big, they left me overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of withdrawal, and at worst to the point where I would relapse into toxic behavior and habits so that I could cope. I didn’t know what I wanted because I had never spent enough time getting to know me. I didn’t know who I wanted to be because I didn’t have enough examples of what was possible for me. And to continue my healing journey and bring radical change into my life, I needed to figure that stuff out without rolling over into a ball of emotions and getting stuck there.

So over the months that followed, I continued to think, journal, and talk it through with myself and my therapist so that I could answer those questions. Here’s a small look at the tools I used to navigate that journey.

I did not realize it at the time but I had a lot of data from my past and present experiences to work with. So, I separated sheets of paper into sections — each representing a given area in my life — Family, Friends, Finances, Career, Health, Relationships, etc. In each section, I would reflect on the experiences, emotions, and lessons learned. Good or bad, I would write it all down to create an accurate picture of where I was and what results were showing up in my life. For example, in the relationship section, I was constantly meeting emotionally unavailable, narcissistic, and manipulative men. I was activating an anxious attachment to them and creating a lot of disappointment in my life. I wrote it all down. I got specific about where I’d meet them, how things would start, how things would end, the language they used when they spoke to me, or about themselves. Every detail mattered and would eventually guide me to know and understand what I wanted in that area. I did that for every area of my life and I did it often. Obviously, it was painful to look at because I needed to accept my role in everything that had shown up. But you know, baby steps.

Equipped with all the information about what I didn’t want, I was able to flip to the other side of the paper and begin a new exercise. This time I would imagine all the things I’d want to experience in my life. I would go into detail as best as I could and tried not to allow any limiting thoughts to hold me back. At this point, I found this easier to do because I had a starting point and clear contrast. Down the road, a mentor of mine also introduced me to the idea of a non-negotiable list. The purpose was to define the boundaries and limits in each area of my life so I could make better decisions about how I invested my time, energy, and resources. It was an extra tool that empowered me with a new sense of clarity and permission to protect the vision I was creating, not only from others but also from my old self.

Protecting the vision required me to take action. But before I did, I was compelled to learn more about habits and patterns, so I could understand how they formed and how they are rewired. One of my earliest reads on the topic came from John B. Arden in his book ‘Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life’. John Arden helped me recognize that my first steps were simple, “You need to pay attention to the situation, the new behavior, or the memory that you want to repeat or remember… Focus allows you to pay attention to what’s happening here and now, and this starts the process of neuroplasticity” (John B. Arden, Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life). I started to incorporate meditation into my daily practice to calm my mind and expand my awareness. My practice was important when I began my journey to quit smoking; each day it helped me maintain the focus I needed to pause and make clear decisions. That awareness helped me identify triggers; some were environmental, some were relationships, some were thoughts or sensations. To hijack those triggers I had to discover new behaviors and habits that could replace the feelings I was looking for. For example, at work, I’d start taking the closing shift so that I couldn’t make last call at the bar with my friends. I started running and working out a lot so that I could physically feel and see the impact that the partying would take on my body. The chest pains and being out of breath when doing a high-intensity workout started to discourage me from smoking. The natural high that I was getting from my new fitness routine also kept me going back for more. The process of changing those habits and relationship dynamics took a few years to fully overcome. There was a lot of trial and error but, coming out on the other side has been one of the most rewarding experiences.

As my new habits started to take form and my boundaries were becoming defined, I continued to gain the courage to revisit the more difficult parts of my life. Some people were confused and doubtful about the changes I was making. Some of them even challenged and tempted me along the way. But it was my responsibility to continue to choose to stay clear and take the necessary actions. Some days choosing my new vision was hard and it set me back a few steps, but it still led me to a helpful understandingno experience is a waste if we use the lessons learned and information available to make wiser decisions. Even when we discover that the choice we made doesn’t feel authentic or good, we still have the power to choose again and again.

Reflecting on my creative and wellness journey. Connect with me on IG @destineealicia