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A Year of Self-Actualization

2013 didn’t suck.

I mean, for God’s sake, I started the year by living in Hawai’i for two months (and it cost less than $1500 — yeah, read that post if you haven’t already) — obviously, 2013 didn’t suck.

Maui, March 2013

I’m writing this post from my apartment outside Boston where I live with a wonderful man who loves me and a grumpy cat who also loves me.

We sent out Christmas cards that featured this photo:


2013 was not perfect. There were months when I felt unsure of myself and unhappy with myself, and I spent an inordinate amount of time in my pajamas watching tv online and avoiding people. I did a lot of worrying about whether I’m too lazy and undisciplined to be a professional writer. But when I think back on this year my failings and fears don’t dominate my thoughts. What comes to mind first are the things I wanted to become and the things I became.

While I was home in Rhode Island for Christmas, I told my family about some of the things that happened to me in 2013 and my brother commented, “this was a year of self-actualization for you.” He was joking because self-actualization is sort of a goofy pop psychology concept, but it rang true. I think I sound ridiculous when I say I believe in “the power of positive thinking,” but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway:

I believe in the power of positive thinking.

South Carolina, May 2013
South Carolina, May 2013

The necessary caveat being: I don’t believe you can positively think your way out of illness or clinical depression. One’s ability to change their mood is limited by the severity of the mood, and a whole host of other privileges. I’m able-bodied, college educated, independently wealthy, and white. I have an excellent support network as well as the time and energy to spend on self-improvement and positive thinking.

And so, around Thanksgiving, I was doing some soul searching. (I even started a scrapbook, which I’m filling with things that inspire me and make me feel happy.) For a number of years now, I’ve operated under the idea that I’m in charge of my life, my feelings, and my own happiness. No one can make me happy, except for me, so that has been my goal. In 2013, though, I noticed a shift in myself and what makes me happy — I let go of some actions and ideas that didn’t serve me and I embraced some new ones.

2013 was a year of changing priorities, positive thinking, and self-improvement thanks in part to two things:

1. I became a sweetheart.

Toronto, June 2013
Toronto, June 2013

It started in Hawai’i, when I unknowingly said something mean to a friend while we were working together. Her boyfriend later told me, “she knew you didn’t mean anything by it because you’re such a sweetheart.” Now, I know that doesn’t sound like much, but with the exception of my parents, no one has ever called me a sweetheart.

My defining quality when I was growing up was intelligence. I was smart and sarcastic and more mature than many kids my age, and I felt misunderstood as a result. To be clear, I was not misunderstood, nor was I bullied, nor was I much of a social outcast. I was going through a pretty typical teenage experience — thinking that I was the only person in the world with complex feelings. And so I was arrogant. If all I had going for me was intelligence, then you better believe people were going to know I was smart. I was lashing out at a perceived (but imagined) threat, and the result was negative.

I was not nice. Categorically. You could go through 100 adjectives to describe me and not make it to nice. But I had friends, and I got a little older, and I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt misunderstood. I went to a college where everyone was smart, and I became more humble. I became less sarcastic and more sincere in my self-expression.

Boston, July 2013
Boston, July 2013

And when my friend called me a sweetheart one afternoon in Hawai’i, I was profoundly moved. Someone thought I was nice. That was their first impression of me. Somewhere along the line I had become a kinder person and I hadn’t even realized. I might never have noticed if he hadn’t pointed it out to me.

And I’m incredibly thankful that he pointed it out because it made me realize how much that mattered to me. Kindness matters to me. Compassion matters to me. Being a sweetheart matters to me. My goal of being happy, which sometimes feels incredibly selfish, seems a little less so when I realize that being a nice person makes me happy.

2. I became a writer.

India, October 2013
India, October 2013

I didn’t always publish regularly on An Opportune Moment (and to those of you who have stuck around anyway, I want to extend my sincerest thanks), but I wrote more this year than I have maybe any other year of my life. And I have seen myself improve as a result. Go figure, practicing your craft makes you better at your craft.

For the first time in my life, people paid me to write things. Not enough, and not often, but it happened, and I wouldn’t have expected that a year earlier. The vast majority of the writing I did last year was unpaid, and I’m still living off savings rather than supporting myself but, looking back on 2013, that doesn’t matter.

2013 was the year I became a writer, not the year I became a successful writer. Here’s hoping 2014 will be that year.

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.


  • Jean O'Donnell-Northup

    I like the Christmas picture too! I wanted you to know that I don’t often leave comments, but I have read nearly all of your posts. If I don’t have the time to read them, I put them in my “Emma” folder, to read at a later date.

  • Bee

    Happy new year Emma! I’m so glad we got to catch up and that I’ve now met your lovely boyfriend in person! I hope 2014 is even better than 2013 🙂

    On another note, I remember you being a little sarcastic in high school but I also remember you as being kind. So don’t be so harsh on yourself!

    Love from the NL

    • opportunemma

      Happy New Year to you too! I’m so glad we got to see each other when you were in RI! And thanks for saying I was kind in high school — unsurprisingly, it means a lot to me.

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