I have read many stories about people turning their life around — there are even guides on how to turn your life around within a certain timeframe (A year? 6 months? Your choice!) Regardless, these stories have one thing in common: People are ready for changes and they’re willing to change.
They realise that changes don’t come when you do the same things day in and day out. Changes come when you do things differently.
But doing things differently might not be enough to turn your life around completely.
I’ve learned that big changes come when you put a stop to whatever it is you’re doing and revise your entire ways of living.
Well, it happened to me.
I left Vietnam for London more than 9 years ago at the young age of 17. Luckily, I wasn’t all alone in London. My eldest sister had done the same thing a few years earlier and was living a life admirable to many. I looked at her and I saw my path. She was a straight-A student, so I had to be a straight-A student. She got into a world-class university so that was where I would aim to be.
For a while, I was happy and proud that I was living “the right life” — my academic record was all A and A*, albeit some struggles to replicate the part of my sister’s journey that didn’t come naturally to me. However, to my disappointment, I didn’t get accepted into my sister’s university. It was when my path started diverging from hers. Suddenly, at 19, I was on my own, pursuing a degree that no one I knew had done before while wondering who I was going to be.
I had always used my sister as my moral compass and my definition of success as she’s the only immediate family I have in the UK and one who has ticked many life achievement boxes. But, as my life took shape, I found it increasingly inappropriate to compare my life to hers. Despite having the same core values, we were (and are) two different people with different strengths and weaknesses, different priorities and interests, different timelines and goals.
Soon, as I stepped further outside of my sister’s mould, I had no one to use as a role model. I found myself doing more and more things no one I knew had done before, and I wasn’t sure where I was heading and whether it would be the place I ultimately wanted. My life wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. I felt like a failure because everything I’d done seemed disjointed and fell outside of most success measures. I didn’t even know who I should measure myself against. I was sick of feeling like my dream was always out of reach.
For the whole of my early twenties, I was floating.
I was wearing a blindfold, letting myself be pulled by anything gratifying. The outcome? I chose the wrong people, I got myself in heartbreaking situations, I experienced the deepest sense of shame and anxiety, I crossed lines, I abused myself on a daily basis. No one was holding me accountable and I didn’t even know what “right” looked like for me, but I knew I was living “the wrong life”. I was one wrong decision away from irreversible consequences.
As this feeling of living “the wrong life” deepened, I did what I knew best at the time — I was desperately latching onto romantic relationships to preserve a certain narrative of me and not lose my mind completely.
When these romantic relationships turned out to be unbelievably toxic for me, however, I realised they couldn’t possibly be my solutions and, if they weren’t, I had nothing to fall back on then… well, except for me — the real me.
In 2019, I felt truly alone for the first time in my life. And I had no energy to find myself another quick fix. I wanted to live “the right life”, but I didn’t even know where to begin.
So I did the unimaginable — I quit everything cold turkey.
A Hard Reset
I needed a hard reset because I couldn’t pinpoint one thing that led me down this wrong lane. Nothing I did daily had a straightforward cause-and-effect.
Society fed me many lies and my relationship with myself had deteriorated for years — I had no trust in my own judgment.
I didn’t realise that a good life needs good principles, and doing morally ambiguous things — even moderately — for instant gratification while assuming minimal consequences is short-sighted at best.
It wouldn’t work without a solid foundation. It could easily become your only way of life if not careful. I knew that I was dangerously close to smudging that line for good. So I needed to stop myself in my tracks.
A hard reset can look different for different people.
For me, it was to stop doing everything that didn’t add real value to me, didn’t mean much to me, didn’t inspire me, didn’t evoke positive emotions in me, didn’t make me feel at ease.
These things included using dating apps, talking to men whom I wasn’t seriously dating, meeting people who didn’t share my values, drinking, trying to seem better than who I really was, doing things that I didn’t feel “fuck yes” about, numbing my senses with short-lived pleasure, and even being glued to my iPhone (I’ve switched to Android.)
Essentially, I had a dopamine shutdown.
Live a Necessity Version of Your Life.
There were no more surprises, no more gambles, no more swiping apps, no more undefined relationships — my life became simple.
I went to work, I went home, I cooked food, I went to the gym, I spent time with my close friends and my sister’s family, I volunteered, I wrote, I read, I breathed, and I found myself.
The pain from my past mistakes and fear of an unknown future didn’t just go away. They lingered and they brought tears to my eyes throughout this process. But I did slowly feel better.
My life wasn’t wildly exciting, but it wasn’t breaking my heart every minute either. It was boringly good, then it was just good when I started nurturing the relationship with myself and enjoying my daily activities. I slowed down and I was present for even the most mundane task.
I felt myself again.
Add One Positive Thing after Another.
My changes were evident when I attended therapy.
Therapy had a huge presence in my life for most of last year. Therapy was how I held myself accountable and stopped doing things that were not beneficial to me. It was also how I learned to trust myself again and became my own anchor. When I had a loving relationship with myself, I was able to set and follow my own principles and draw strong boundaries. My boundaries and principles have kept me healthy and happy ever since.
Importantly, I developed a firm moral stance for myself. I stopped asking the world what was right and wrong, what was normal and not normal— I was confident that I knew the answers, and if I didn’t, I could find information and form my own opinions.
Next, I picked up value-adding hobbies — hobbies that didn’t just bring me pleasure but also expanded me in various ways. For example, I took up Improv courses, which then led me to do an Improv live show. It totally pushed me out of my comfort zone and gained me many kind-hearted friends. It also helped me improve my anxiety and communication skills.
And what’s more, I found a new position at work to do something that I enjoyed and moved to a place that made more sense to me geographically and financially. When I was ready to put myself out there again, I was clear about what I was looking for and changed my dating approach accordingly.
Do the Next Right Thing.
I love this line from Frozen 2: “Do the next right thing”.
It resonated well with me because it was exactly what I did last year. When I could trust my judgment, I became more confident in my ability to plan my next moves and that each brick I lay down would eventually make up a beautiful castle — even when I could barely draw the floorplan of that castle yet.
If you have followed the above steps, gradually, your dreams will turn into realistic goals and you’ll see that the universe isn’t getting in your way — it’s helping you. By eliminating distractions and toxic influences while building supportive systems all around you, you have set yourself up for success, not failure.
From here on, if you find yourself in a healthy, loving relationship and want to have children, the future can unfold quickly, each day building upon the last. If you’re single and childfree, it’s liberating and empowering, but I understand it can feel overwhelming and uncertain at the same time as there’s so much time and room for you to make use of.
What you could do is make a rough sketch of your future to guide your daily decisions, then clean it up and colour it as you go. Regardless of what it looks like, though, if you have built a solid relationship with yourself, you should have a gut feeling of what “the right life” is to you. Follow that instinct. Over time, you’ll be able to make “great” out of “good”.
The Key Takeaway
I managed to turn my life around in a year because I was finally ready to make the hard decisions. Today I’m happy, healthy, and stable. From my first-hand experiences, changes don’t come without discomfort— at least in the short run.
Here are the steps to follow:
- Reset your life (and your dopamine pathway) — stop everything you’re doing and ban instant gratifications.
- Go back to basics — only do what you need to do to stay alive, functional, and healthy; whatever it is that you’re not “fuck yes” about, drop it.
- Add one positive thing after another — once you have the basics sorted, start picking up other things but only the value-adding ones; be absolutely ruthless about what you invest your time and energy in
- Have a rough sketch of your future and follow your instinct of what “the right life” is to you — don’t be afraid to hit that reset button again.