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  • Writer's pictureOlive Von Topp

My Top 10 Lessons in Personal Growth From The Last 10 Years

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Well, 2019, it's been swell. I bid you adieu.

Hello 2020!

I love New Years. Not so much the partying, but the reflecting on the past year and the looking forward to the next.

This new year, because it is a new decade, I've been reflecting a lot on the past 10 years. And holy crap, a lot has happened and I have personally grown a lot!

In the last 10 years I have:

  • Gone to South America alone and backpacked for 3 months with a woman I met there

  • Completed a Masters degree

  • Almost lost my partner multiple times to mental illness and once to a climbing accident in which he was lucky to only break his back

  • Ended said unhealthy 8.5 year relationship

  • Experimented, expanded, and learned a lot about my sexuality, desires, and pleasure

  • Started in my ‘career’ in sexual health and then subsequently, mental health and addiction. Since then I have changed jobs within my ‘career’ 5 times

  • Taught countless workshops, seminars, and even a College course

  • Started a relationship with the most supportive and loving person I could ask for

  • Battled chronic illness

  • Faced some pretty big personal demons & started on my healing journey

  • Started doing burlesque

  • Joined a belly dance troupe & co-founded a burlesque troupe

  • Started producing burlesque shows and teaching burlesque

  • Finished my coaching certification & starting empowerment coaching

  • Travelled to Cuba, Colombia, Croatia, Belize, New York, New Orleans (in addition to the S. America trip)

  • Lost several loved ones

  • Quit full time work and started my own business

  • And most impressively, learned to drive standard

It’s a pretty wild list to look at. Because my life hasn’t followed the conventional path, and therefore does not have a lot of the conventional (read society views as valuable) milestones (ie. Mortgage, marriage, kids, promotion, etc.), I forget that I have done and seen some shit (more on my story in an upcoming post). During this time, I happened to have learned a thing or two (see, it was all worthwhile).

As I reflect on my last decade, I thought I would share with you my Top 10 personal growth lessons from the last 10 years. So in no particular order, (but maybe a little bit) here ya go:

1. Getting healthy and healing requires more than just a physical approach.

Oh seems obvious, does it? Where were you when I was trying to fix my health solely from a physical approach? Oh how I wish I had known this earlier. I wish I had taken better care of my health all round (psst! 20 some-thing-year-olds: you won’t be young forever- take care of yourself now).

It wasn’t until I really started battling chronic health issues with little improvement that I began to look into the effect that trauma and stress has on your physical well-being. I mean, I knew this, but I did not know the extent of it. I didn’t know how it change you on a cellular level. I didn’t know how childhood coping mechanisms might actually be contributing to poor health. Reading Gabor Mate’s “When the Body Says No”, really changed the way I looked at this. Everything just started to make sense. I began to grow.

Now, I am working on healing myself beyond just the physical. I am working on growing my emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being as well.

2. You deserve happiness, and your needs are just as important as anyone else’s.

This is something I get on an intellectual level, but it still trips me up subconsciously sometimes. I still see myself making decisions in my life that are based in some core childhood belief that my needs are not as important as anyone else’s. I believe this was a huge contributor to my decision to stay in an unhealthy relationship, and in having shitty personal boundaries in general.

But now, I now truly believe this to my core.

Personal Growth and self discovery
This is me in 2010 in Argentina. This trip to South America was huge for me. I took space from my relationship for self-discovery, and explored my own needs and capabilities for the first time in a long time..

I deserve happiness (and so do you). Your needs matter. You are worthy and there is nothing in this life that can change your worth. It is your birthright. You are worthy. End. Of. Story.

3. You can’t save anyone but yourself.

Oh lordy, take it from me. I tried. This lesson in personal growth was hard won. I sacrificed a lot (see aforementioned needs) and it didn’t really make that big a difference. Except to me. It took a big toll on me. I learned this in my relationship.

With family. Even in my work. It is not your job to save anyone. Just yourself. And sometimes that feels selfish, but it is a self-preservation instinct (insert overused metaphor about putting on your own oxygen mask first). If you want to "save" people, become a doctor. Or a priest.

4. Listen to your intuition. You know better than anyone else.

Listen to it!!!! You have it.

Use it.

Maybe you have spent a lot of time ignoring it, but you know somewhere inside you what is right for you. How many times have people talked about a challenge or ‘poor’ decision and in hindsight, they realized that they knew all along it wasn’t right? Growing taught me to learn from these insights.

Well, I’m telling you now, get (re)acquainted with your intuition and start using it.

Any time I have ignored mine, it hasn’t turned out great (yeah… life lessons and stuff). Anytime I have listened to it, it has been fine or even great (even that time I took a bus by myself in Mexico with two men I had only known for a few days outside of city limits to go party in a club when I was 18- I trusted my intuition. We had a great time and I am here to tell the tale. See, intuition. Sorry mom).

5. Only you can make you happy (or unhappy). You are in control of your own thoughts and feelings.

Speaking of my mom, she is actually the one who gave me this personal growth advice as a kid (I believe in the form of “Never rely on anyone else for your own happiness”), but I really learned it to the core in this last decade. One, you can’t rely on anyone else or any THING else to make you happy cuz you don’t have control over that and you are leaving your happiness up to someone else. This can surely only lead to bitterness.

Two, I have really been learning lately how very in control we are of our own thinking and therefore our own feelings. Happiness is a choice (and yes some people’s choice is more constrained than other’s due to barriers, etc). But ultimately you can choose to be happy. You choose how you think about things and whether you will think thoughts that make you happy (ie. I have enough, I am enough, I am grateful for _____, I am learning and that’s okay, etc).

It’s not what you have, it’s how you think about what you have.

6. You are stronger than you think. You can accomplish anything. You are powerful af.

Okay, so this is a few lessons in one, but they are all kinda the same theme. If I learned nothing else in my time working in mental health and addiction, it is the incredible resilience of humans and their capacity for personal growth. I have been amazed by what people have endured and how they still manage to make meaning and find joy in life. I have seen some shit and at times thought I wouldn’t survive. But I did! And now every time the going gets tough, I remember all I have been through and remind myself that I will get through this. That I will be okay. That I too, will eventually make meaning of this.

Similarly, you can accomplish anything. I now realize that the only limits to what we want to accomplish is ourselves (and yes, again, some people are faced with far greater barriers than others). But ultimately, you really can do anything you set your mind to, if you want it badly enough. Now I sound like a Hallmark card. You know what I mean.

And you are powerful as fuck, you majestic beast.

Here I am on the day I completed my Master's degree. This was an intensely challenging period for me - but it taught me that I had so much personal strength.

Sometimes I wish I had realized this at a younger age, but I think much of this realization comes with age. Perhaps youth can’t be trusted with this kind of power (aren’t there books about this?). I am coming into the knowledge of my own power now, and I am excited to see where it takes me when I fully realize it. Watch. Out.

7. You don’t have to settle for a life you are unhappy with.

I remember thinking, “What if this is as good as it gets?”.

Depressing, right? Then, somehow, a lightbulb went off and I realized I could change it! I didn’t have to settle. Not for a job, not for a partner, not for some lack-lustre mediocre life. I’m not talking about being entitled or not having to work for things, or do shit you don’t want to do, or sometimes make sacrifices.

I’m talking about not doing what you think you “should” instead of what brings you joy and passion. Giving up on your dreams and settling. Or worse, not dreaming at all. Life is too short (see point 10) to spend it dragging your feet through a passionless existence day after day until you die.

You can make changes to live a happier life.

It’s not too late! You can actually achieve your dreams. You don’t have to settle for someone else’s boring expectations of you.

Personal growth self discovery
I remember taking this photo in 2012 on a solo trip to Vancouver (clearly on an older phone!). At the time I was beginning to realize that I didn't have to settle in life. A "rebirth" or "restart" can happen at any time in your life. It is never too late!

8. Great gains involve great risk.

This is sort of an add-on to the last lesson. If you want to change shit, like really go after your dreams, you have to take risks. You have to get comfortable with uncertainty and learn to trust yourself that you will handle whatever happens. I can’t remember who said comfort zones are where dreams go to die, but it is apt. You will never accomplish your dreams if you are too scared to be uncomfortable. If you want to change things, you need to take risks.

9. Failure is feedback. Don't be afraid of it. Grow from it.

And on that note, if you take risks, you will fail. Guaranteed. So you gotta get comfortable with failing. And part of how you do that is a) start doing it more and realizing it isn’t so bad b) start reframing the way you think about it.

What are you are you making failure mean about you? It doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy enough (remember we covered this in lesson #2). It just means you are a person willing to take risks. To put yourself out there. To be vulnerable. And “vulnerable” is not the dirty word you think it is.

Failure really isn’t that bad. It is really just not meeting your own expectations. You can handle that! It is feedback on how to do something better. Learn from it. Try again. Fail. Try again. Succeed. Ask anyone who is “successful” and they will tell you about all the times they failed. The trick is not to never fall. But to keep getting up when you do. God, I really should get a job with Hallmark.

10. Life is short and time is precious. Be as present in every moment as you can be. 

So, I definitely started learning this one more than 10 years ago but it has really been hammered home this decade and I am really trying to live more in the moment. Losing loved ones and working with people with chronic illness has really made me realize how quickly it can all be taken away from you.

If you were given 6 months to live, would you start savouring every moment, knowing they were fleeting? Would you be satisfied with the way you lived your life?

Would you tell people what they meant to you? Would you care about all the money you made or how much you weighed or what kind of house you lived in? While it is unrealistic and likely unhealthy to think about this all the time, it is good to be reminded of how very precious life is so that we can try to be more present in the day-to-day moments. They are, in fact, some of the most beautiful parts of life.

Looking at this childhood image of myself reminds me of the preciousness of life. Enjoy it and live it fully.

Well, that’s my 10 years of personal growth lessons, in a nutshell. It’s not like I have mastered all these lessons and never get tripped up or temporarily forget. But they are the biggest lessons I have learned from the last decade and they were worth every tear, every wrinkle and grey hair, all the heart-ache, and all the crippling anxiety. I don’t know what the next decade will hold, but I trust myself that I can handle it, and who knows, maybe eventually even make meaning out of it.

Wishing you joy, personal growth and self-love in 2020 and beyond.


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