A Guide to Relationships: from a girl who spent her childhood excluded
What I’d tell my 6–18 year old self about friends, relationships and standards
I’m turning 20 in August and I’ve spent the last 9 months of my teenage years travelling (Jamaica, Canada, Asia, Europe, East Africa).
A good chunk of it has been solo. Other chunks with friends new and old. Other chunks with people who really feel like family (by blood or by becoming).
I have never been happier to be myself. It’s a combination of my freedom within the world, gratitude for the people who still show up and my ability to define my own standards.
I’m writing this on a hammock in Koh Phangan, Thailand, on a trip with my friend Becca. She came here all the way from our uni in America and I’m feel so in awe that someone would fly across the world to take on an ambiguous adventure with me.
6-year-old me would be surprised. 18-year-old me would be surprised.
Because growing up, my childhood felt like one word: excluded. Clubs, sports, friends, “in” groups and even the “out” groups. I was always a bit of a quirky outcast.
My parent-teacher interviews always went a little like: “Isabella is great… in many ways… good grades and thorough participation… but her peers can be afraid of her and honestly she has a hunger I have no idea what to do with”
Things that came out of my mouth always felt a bit too bold or weird or audacious. I’d cry at night thinking “why can’t I be normal”? “Why don’t I have a best friend?” “What am I missing?”
My personality, my wants, my appearance all felt like they had a deficit because I was constantly rejected and excluded socially.
Even my first year of university felt this way. Why couldn’t I shake it off?
Because everyone talks about fitting in. No one encourages you to “fit out.”
I am happiest pursuing my quirky “what ifs” and no, there’s no club for that, but there’s a sea of other ambitious people in the world, I just have to find them.
So when my plane left America on Dec 11, 2022, I decided to completely let go for the next 9 months, and be the freest, most concentrated version of myself, whether that was “in” or not. I embraced exclusion.
Here’s what my younger self needed to know about people.
Most people grow up in systems where choice is an illusion. Your school is not often one you chose to go to, but a circumstance you landed on. Your subjects are pre-determined, with potentially the inconsequential choice between world history or psychology.
Kids spend their childhood being provided a path, a controlled set of choices, and their livelihood.
Travel does something different.
It unleashes choice. Unlimited choice, limited resources. The child (young adult) becomes the planner not the one executing plans.
It’s defamiliarization. By pursuing the flipped reality we are able to lose complacency for our status quo and question things more objectively. We are experiencing the opposite we are used to, so of course, we’ll learn a thing or two.
A new environment opens our minds to alternatives that don’t clash. We spend a lot of life evaluating things on binaries — good or bad, girl or boy, smart or stupid — that we condense the world into oversimplifications.
Travel has added nuance to these binaries and has expanded them beyond that dimension.
Concretely, it’s taken my world from 2 dimensions to multiple. In 2 dimensions, lines can either be parallel or intersecting.
In 3 dimensions they can be parallel, intersecting or neither.
The “neither” is significant because many different experiences can co-exist without bothering (intersecting) or copying (being parallel).
What has my freedom done for my relationships?
- Freedom (during travel) has forced me to sit through a bunch of ambiguity and think about what I really want. There are no more time fillers. No one is saying what you must do for tomorrow or next week. I learned how to plan for myself be it food, activities or transit.
- Once you can think for yourself, you can have self-awareness. Once you have self-awareness, you can build self-respect. With self-respect, you can honour your standards and start to say no. Freedom of time, expectations and deviation from normalcy train this.
- What I’d tell little Isabella is to continue dreaming. Dream of travel, extremity, and risks. Because those are the things that will build up her self-confidence and love of life. No one else needs to fill her cup. Freedom teaches you to define what fills your cup.
- It helped me create my non-negotiables. I am happy. I am positive. I am a sponge (for information). The freest version of my self is all these things, therefore, I should prioritize the people around me to amplify and embrace these parts of myself I adore.
- Lack of obligation reveals true feelings — between you and others. Who actually texts? Who actually calls? Who’s crazy enough to tag along on your adventures? When you are free to be, you can decipher who is there for convenience vs for your truest self. Shake off the excess.
- Within my freedom, I have been intentional about observation. Because with freedom you don’t have to react or obey. You can just be. You can ponder. There is no homework and there is no one to report to (except yourself). This observation of different cultures/people has allowed me to reflect on what values I hold and how I want the people around me to inspire me.
(Is this just a big endorsement for spending time abroad? Taking a gap year? Oh yes.)
- Ultimately, freedom has taught me to take responsibility. No excuses. This life is my own. I set the standards, choose how I spend my resources, choose what I say yes to. Travel has taught me how to carve an interesting day, week or month out of a million interesting potential yeses. I am the main designer in my life, and that also holds true for my relationships.
Little Isabella, take responsibility for the people you surround yourself with. But first, take responsibility for your decisions, because only then will you feel empowered to understand your emotions and learn from them.
During this 9-month experiment I’ll have been to 17 countries, 12 new ones, across 4 continents.
These exposures have fuelled a level of gratitude I didn’t know was possible. The kindness across cultures, moments of serendipity in the most unforeseen of places, and my former life colliding.
I have practiced a bias towards gratitude that has helped me see abundance within the people in my life. I feel so content. So content. Like I could go live in a cave for 10 months just rejoicing on the beautiful relationships I have had the opportunity to experience.
Training this gratitude has been imperative to setting my standards (next section). Because now I know what amazing feels like. I have become more in tune such that I can recognize “bad” situations and walk away from them — because I have things to walk towards.
While I was snorkelling in Thailand my group saw a HUGE turtle. Bigger than me!! And I am a long lady!! It was magical.
Afterwards, I was talking to someone who said they talked to another person who saw a turtle double the size. They then were sad they didn’t see that turtle.
But why? We were perfectly happy seeing the creature. It was only when someone introduced a potential other reality that we got unhappy.
How much bigger of a turtle do you even need to see? At some point the returns are marginal.
Gratitude is the foundation for happiness. Learn to respect what you have; be the positive light in the world, and the most wholesome, kind, loving people will follow.
I had 2 (very bad) relationships and many failed friendships before I realized what love actually is.
Love has standards, it takes effort and requires a lot of honesty.
Love is not wishy-washy, performative or easy.
Little Isabella was rushed to feel loved because she needed to prove a thesis. That her exclusion as a child was unwarranted. She is deserving of love and friendship.
Specifically, I have learned to separate standards from bonuses. I have also realized that over time standards need to go up. Relationships are not the place to be complacent.
Be picky about standards but praise bonuses (exceeding standards). Raise expectations with time. The right people will keep up.
Here are a couple rules-of-thumb I have found (and there’s a good handful of meaningful people in my life that have helped me appreciate these — much gratitude and you know who you are):
- Communication should be reciprocal. I have too many friends who play the “don’t text for 48 hours to see if they’ll text” game. It’s stupid. If they know you like I know you, they should be JUMPING on the opportunity to text you. Essentially, communication should have effort on both sides. No power dynamics. No excuses.
- Similar baseline appetites. Your baseline is the level of risk and motivation you inject into your life. For example, I’m spontaneous. I like people who are equally spontaneous or more. We hold fundamental beliefs in a similar fashion, and thus, we’re more compatible.
- Energizing striving appetites. While some relationships can maintain or enhance your values, I believe we’re happiest as humans when we are nurturing ourselves and growing. Like a seed to tree. People who support who you want to become are incredibly important. Especially think about the vibe you want between: optimist vs pessimist, traditional vs unconventional and employee vs entrepreneur. We all strive in different ways; we need different fertilizers.
- No mind-reading. Say what you want. It starts with speaking your mind and then holding the standard for others to be mature enough to speak theirs. I wasted too much of my time implicitly reading people I was closely associating with. Short cuts lead to dead ends — if you can’t honestly share how you felt neglected on your birthday, bigger problems will be way harder to solve.
- All love languages. We love to box ourselves into things like “love languages” and this can be detrimental within relationships because people can then go: oh, that’s not my love language, that’s why I’m bad at it. I expect in a partner or friend to have all 5 elements of the love languages, not necessarily to the extremes (e.g. I don’t need expensive or extravagant gifts). Essentially, if people are complacent about their behaviour and use their ‘identity’ to rationalize their deficits (instead of seeing them as an opportunity to grow and love better), they are not mature enough to be in a relationship with me.
- Endorse favourite things. I have some things that really bring me joy (hand-written notes, books, flowers, etc) and I used to push those down at the convenience of the people around me — for instance, hand-written notes take a lot of time. But those are the things I like? Why should I push down something I really enjoy? If they’re going to show their affection towards me, isn’t it most productive for it to be in the way I enjoy most? Similarly, I want to endorse other people’s favourite things… even if they’re not mine. Caring takes effort; there will be someone willing to put in the work. I think you just know when people respect what you love. They are willing to bake with you even if they hate baking and they will still have a good time.
- Be surrounded by people who let you change your mind. We are all growing and adapting with new information. I have been in relationships where the other party holds me darkly to something I said or did before but have since changed my mind on; these were a waste of energy. People who love you will support your growth and will be gracious when you change your mind.
- Be independent first. My #1 advice to younger people, especially girls, is to know what it feels like to be at your happiest, most productive, most excited self. Let that be your baseline. Any person who isn’t actively supporting this baseline or helping you level up (preferred) is not for you.
- If you’re not willing to break up, you’re not ready to be in a relationship. You have to be willing to look at your situation objectively. If you’re committed to seeing a fairytale love-story follow through, you will blind yourself to the deficits in the relationship and you won’t be able to give yourself the love experience that is truly amazing. Why? Because you’re thinking about how your life looks instead of how it feels. Most often you’re insecure about being alone. A boyfriend or girlfriend will not fix this insecurity, they may temporarily fill a void, but you will be deprived of the real beauty of love.
- If it was someone else, what would you say? It’s much easier to be critical when it isn’t about you. Get your friend’s honest support. Look at your relationship as if it were your best friends. For me, I am lucky enough to have a few adults that truly feel like family (which, for relationships can feel like they’re meeting my ‘parents’ 10 times over haha), but their opinion is important to me. Because they know and care about me. If I am embarrassed to show who I associate with, I am with the wrong person.
- Value ownership above language. Mature people take responsibility for their actions and can recognize when there’s no space for an excuse. For instance, I spent some time around people who had hard things going on in their lives but they still made bad decisions. Instead of owning the pressures of their lives and taking actions towards improvement, they made excuses or called me apathetic. Mature relationships should not feel like babysitting.
- Nothing implicit or behind backs. Time and time again I’ve seen young people try to ‘hint’ at things through their stories or in backhanded conversation. It’s a fear of confrontation and it’s unproductive. Learn to say what you mean to people you invest a lot of time into. Are you scared of their reaction? That’s probably a sign of immaturity or someone not ready to operate on your level of seriousness/commitment. Recently I’ve spent time with an incredible person who even when I say the most vulnerable or scariest of things always has the most text-book perfect reactions. These people exist! Don’t settle!
- Appearance matters. I used to think it’s just personality that matters, but like food, we eat with our eyes first. I’ve realized that I am not a fan of sloppiness or certain types of behavioural trends that manifest into fashion, and that is ok. I can have preferences. This is my life and I owe it to myself to be picky.
In conclusion: have standards and realize your freedom in this world and you’ll be unstoppable. You can strive for anything.
Don’t make excuses. Do you think excuses built the internet, vaccines or skyscrapers? No. They were built by people who believed in a greater vision. Don’t focus on pessimism. Yes, many people get divorced every year but also many people are happily married. Learn from the happily. Don’t be scared of saying no. If it isn’t perfect, there will be more perfect. Don’t waste your time or energy or spirit. You deserve to hold yourself to standards.
These last few months before twenty have been so foundational to the optimism, high standards and ambition I’d like to channel in my life. I feel much more prepared to take on the world.
I don’t know if I could have reached this state of emotional maturity without challenging myself in new environments. Especially when environments like university have such a gravitational pull towards the average.
Go enjoy the world!! It’s beautiful.
If you’d like to connect, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org or you can reach out to me on LinkedIn.