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Sundays with Sonja: Honoring Your Inner Voice

Yesterday I enjoyed a few hours with my closest family members at my nephew’s birthday party. Somewhere between the sound of toddler giggles and too much buttercream frosting, adult conversation took place. As I caught up with my cousin about the whirlwind of circumstances thrust upon us over the last few years, we spoke intimately about the unpredictable nature of this thing called life. “My sister is the ultimate planner,” I said, “Just look at this birthday. Me? I’m not a planner. I have always taken the winding road to where I want to be.”

The truth is, this may come as a shock to most people. In order to work in my field as a nurse anesthetist, one must possess type-A hyper-vigilance in your very nature. You become a disaster planner. A catastrophizer. A master of anticipation and a proud owner of options B, C, and D at any given moment. Your job is a far cry from taking risks: instead, your work is entirely dedicated to mitigating them. And yet, one of my greatest struggles in adulthood has always been toeing the line between eliminating major risks and leaping in their general direction.

I am, ironically, a risk averse daredevil. While you won’t catch me BASE jumping or riding a Harley any time soon, I’m certainly open to taking professional chances. When I left my unfulfilling corporate career and returned to being a server and bartender as a full-time nursing student, I knew in my heart the decision would be a successful one. Deep within me, there was a voice that nudged me toward a career in nursing. But man, did I face some serious scrutiny! The people around me believed that I was crazy, irrational, perhaps even irresponsible for leaving a stable corporate career at the height of a recession in exchange for reading books and slinging beers.

I was an English major in my first life – or perhaps, in the first chapter of my evolving story – and had pigeonholed myself into the few career paths that seemed acceptable for the high-achieving children of hard-working immigrants. I’m sure many of you know them well: doctor; lawyer; engineer. Initially I believed I wanted to enter medicine, but after my mother’s soul-crushing cancer diagnosis when I was merely a freshman in college, I decided I could never set foot within the walls of a hospital ever again. (Spoiler alert: I was wrong!) Instead of becoming a doctor, I would become a lawyer…and I would pursue a degree an English Language and Literature to lay the foundation.

In truth and in hindsight, I never wanted to choose between the arts or the sciences: I loved them both, and felt equally drawn to anatomy and physiology as I did prose and poetry. The problem was – and perhaps we don’t truly recognize this while we are in the moment – I was raised to think small. In fact, we all are. Our abilities are pinpointed from early childhood, and we are deemed “gifted” or “average” or “unsatisfactory.” The wonder and potential of everything we could ever accomplish is replaced by the stark reality of financial limitations, societal expectations, and the pressure to please others. From the moment we begin walking and talking and exploring the world around us, our intuition is shushed and our instincts are silenced. We are plucked from the sky, unknowingly allowing the world to screw the head that floats among the clouds tightly upon our logical shoulders. We are taught to look forward instead of up. We are tucked away in tiny, predictable boxes and to deviate from the course that suits us would only be seen as failure.

As the child of Macedonian immigrants who forwent their own potential in search of something better, I felt obligated to honor the immense sacrifices of those who came before me. For me to fail in my obligations, would mean to disappoint my family. And to someone who, at the time, knew little of the role that boundaries could play in my life, I simply couldn't give myself permission to change my mind, because unfinished business was akin to failure.

The burning desire to identify my own sense of passion of purpose – one that conflicted with traditional expectations set forth by everyone around me – led me down the meandering backroads to where I stand today. Nobody ever taught me that I have options; that I have choices; that I could build a multitude of careers that honored the multi-faceted layers of who I am instead of being confined by the limitations of go to work; go to sleep; go to work; go to sleep; repeat for forty years; retire for a short while; and eventually die.

There is no such thing as “Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, social media influencer, and best-selling author” on a college application. There is no alternative that permits you to choose a little of everything or nothing at all, so we seal our fates at far too young an age with way too little life experience and hope for the best. But how many people do you know that are truly happy? How many people are genuinely fulfilled? Rewarded? Satisfied? It took years of life experience, personal transformation, and major life changes for me to recognize the fact that I was never made to exist in just one box. I wanted all the boxes, and I wanted them in different permutations and combinations based on where I am in life. I wanted variety, and if something did not yet exist, I wanted the opportunity to create it. Once I finally learned how to prioritize the woman I truly am with who others wanted me to be – through self-reflection, therapy, and creating firm but loving boundaries – I opened my eyes to the path before me. I was, indeed, off the beaten path, somehow wandering through a forest of my own creation – but instead of being scared of the unknown, I slowed down to smell the familiar fragrance of my future potential.

The first step toward discovering what you want to do, is recognizing who you want to be. And the only way you will ever figure out who you want to be, is to understand who you already are. Are you creating a life with intention and purpose, or are you going through the motions? Do you work hard for the intrinsic joy of creating, helping, or doing…or are you seeking some external reward? Would you be willing to take a temporary cut in your pay, in exchange for more of your time? Are you driven by your own desires, or does external validation serve you? What would you say to the younger version of you – the wide-eyed, wonder-filled, unconventional dreamer? Would you tell them to be reasonable? Be realistic? Be quiet? Or would you allow them to float in the clouds for a while?

This is your message. This is your sign. This is your permission to honor your inner child, and pursue the life that would make them proud. You don’t need to hear it from me, but it certainly helps to have the encouragement from someone who has lived in your shoes. You don’t need to be perfect: you are a work in progress, and every day is an opportunity to explore something new. If you aren’t ready to make major changes, then don’t: in fact, perhaps you never will. Instead, simply honor that inner voice: the one that gives you the nudge. The one that lives for delicious bites of endless curiosity. If you can’t yet stomach the entire meal, simply enjoy a tiny morsel. Eventually – through time and a taste of confidence – you’ll be the one doing all the cooking.

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