I’ve always loved birthdays, whether they were mine or somebody else’s. The thought of gathering to celebrate the life of somebody you love has always been an exciting part of every year. But when my own birthday creeps its way around the calendar, I always find myself reflecting on my life experiences. When I realized that on March 22, 2022, I would be turning 20 years old, I was almost shocked. Of course, I knew that it would happen eventually — one more year around the sun calls for turning one year older — but turning 20 always seemed so distant. This year, my birthday didn’t feel as exciting as it used to before — instead, it felt daunting, and I dreaded leaving behind the shelter that came with being a teenager.
Turning 20 made me anxious. To some, leaving the “teen years” feels like emerging into adulthood with open arms. For me, dropping the “-teen” at the end of my age felt like the clock had sped up too fast for me to catch up to. I try to reflect on my teen years with a certain fondness; not to say that they were all painless, but they allowed me to harbor a great deal of wisdom and growth at such young ages. I remember turning 15 and hardly being able to wait for my 16th birthday, the birthday that society harps on as being an emergence into your true teenage years. I remember feeling nervous, but eagerly awaiting the expectations of newfound independence, like driving (even though I didn’t do much of it), staying out later and being taken more seriously by the adults in my life.
While my younger self had thought that this would be the peak of my young adulthood, I had merely entered a year filled with the insecurity and stress that came with being an emerging junior in high school. At the time, I was entangled in the all-consuming feeling of not being good enough — whether that be over my top choice college (which, spoiler alert, I now attend), or the friend group I was floating through, or the courses I was taking. I felt as though I was in constant competition with a standard that I could never reach: perfection. Everybody seemed to worry about being “popular” or getting the best grades or test scores. As a generally anxious person, I always felt as though these superficial standards were impossible to meet. Nobody is liked by everyone, and not everybody can receive straight As or a 1600 on their SAT. And certainly, people can’t always acquire all three of those traits. Even while being well-aware of this, I had tried my hardest to climb to the top of every ladder. Although I wasn’t a perfectionist, I was constantly surrounded by the stress of being perfect and doing more than what was expected in order to soar far beyond the walls of my small high school. Little did I know, feeling like I am “not enough” is a battle that even my 20-year-old self struggles to overcome long after graduating high school.
I want to say that since coming to college, my imposter syndrome has gotten both better and worse. Although I am more mature and secure in myself, I still battle with the ever-present fear of not being where I “need to be.” Coming from a high school that is composed of an overwhelmingly Arab student body, where most students are not met with the opportunity of moving away for college or even attending a university like the University of Michigan, I face a new struggle of assimilating into a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) as an underrepresented student of Color. Dealing with these complicated, ever-present experiences has shown me that the journey of growing up is not a straight road. The complex twists and turns of turning older are bittersweet, and they make learning and reflecting on my identity that much more important.
Quickly, I learned that being 16 was no match for turning 18. I would go on to graduate high school at the top of my class, attend college at my dream school, move onto campus and leave the town I had worked so desperately to escape. Because I came from a school as small as my own — with a graduating class of 88 people, which I attended from kindergarten throughout my senior year — I was eager to leave the familiar walls and go on to much more. Even though I didn’t get straight As in high school, or anywhere near a 1600 SAT score, it taught me that my goals are obtainable if I am passionate or dedicated enough to a cause. I learned that perfection isn’t always expected and that “perfection” is taught as a fear response to “not being good enough,” a struggle that I have since then learned that most people are battling. Even though my 18th birthday was two years ago, that year defined what I set out to be for the rest of my life: entirely my own. Since then, I consider the last two years to be my most pivotal years of growth. I would hold the world in the palm of my hands and stare at it through my rose-colored lenses, marching through the streets of Ann Arbor as if nothing in the world could get in the way of my goals, passions or self-proclaimed expectations. Although I continually deal with anxiety around self-assurance, becoming 18 was remarkably important to shifting how I view myself and developing my identity.
Over this last year of being 19, the foundation of confidence and security I had begun to build was met with the weight of trying to proudly showcase my Lebanese, Muslim identity at a PWI. This created a different level of emotional turmoil that I had never experienced before in my sheltered, small town of predominantly Arabs and Muslims. I also held the fears of not being able to achieve my academic and personal goals, not only because of my own barriers but because of barriers that were placed upon me by systems and people who may never even know me. While I had some experience with being “othered” prior to this, I channeled my anxiety into becoming more introspective; I allowed my hardships to drive me to be passionate and loud about causes that were important to displaying my identity.
At 19, I realized that every year of life comes with its own set of ups and downs, but instead of trying to escape them, I have learned to embrace them for what they give me in return. Experience. Maturity. Gratitude. Empathy. When I look back at my 16-year-old self — the anxious teenager who worried so much about what her life would become, if her friends truly liked her, what college she would go to — I see a girl who stressed too much, who worked to please the people in her life, who gave herself up to help others, who worked herself more than her capacity. I think of myself, who still does these things, and feel so much love for the girl who tries so hard to just be.
Although getting older still makes me anxious, I have a newfound sense of admiration for the beauty of overcoming struggles. I have a love for the person I once was, the person I have become (and the intertwining of the two). Over the last few years, I have grown to be proud of my accomplishments — although the doubt is still there, my pride and passion allow me to overcome my wary feelings. I am a girl who shoots her shot and doesn’t miss, a confident speaker, a lover, a great friend, a writer, an artist and a person who allows herself to feel whatever emotion may hit her. A girl who has found that there is not only beauty in confidence, but in suffering, overcoming even the heaviest hardships and moving past what once was. Because when I look back at my life, I will realize that once the storm had cleared, it was like a new life was waiting for me on the other side. My younger self would not be able to believe it.
So maybe turning 20 will be okay. Maybe leaving my teens is not the end, but the beginning of a new exploration of identity, self-doubt, self-confidence and the complexity of being. Maybe I will fight the feeling of not belonging and learn to embrace my 20s with open arms. And because of the lessons learned in my teen years, growing up will be something I continually welcome, rather than something I fear.
And maybe turning 21 will be that much better.
MiC Columnist Yasmine Elkharssa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.