What My 45-Year-Old Self Would Tell My 25-Year-Old Self

It really is true that hindsight is 20/20 and sometimes can only be learned by looking backwards.


I was born on the day following Father's Day at a little after 1 am. My late father always said that I was the best present he had ever received in his life. Well, on June 17, a day that also immediately follows Father's Day, I'll be (what?!) 45 years old. Five years from 50. Wow. Just wow.

A couple of days ago, when I sat to think about where I was—literally as well as emotionally—and what I was doing 20 years ago, I had to stop and catch my breath a bit. I remember when a surrogate mother of mine had her last conversation with me while dying on her hospice bed. She was only in her 50s when she said, "Shellie, it goes by faster than you think." Boy, does it. Although my health is good (praise the Lord!) and I hope to see many (MANY) more years, when I think back to the fact that in 1999, I was only 25 years old and then when I reflect on all of the life lessons I have learned since then…my surrogate mom was correct. Time really does fly. If you're blessed, you have a few things to show for it.

Although I don't take it lightly when someone asks my age, I tell them and they reply with how much younger I look, honestly, I'm a firm believer that if you live each year to its fullest, you are not only unafraid of aging, you're actually ready to move on to the next year; you're open to seeing what the next 365 days have in store.

I'm pretty much an ambivert, so while it's highly doubtful that I'll be out here partying like it's 1999 on my special day, I do want to share a few things that these past two decades have taught me; things that, I wish I had known (or paid closer attention to) back when I was 25.

1. You Don’t Need Half of What’s in Your Closet

Writer Shellie R. Warren

Cody Uhls

According to the Cheat Sheet website, here are some of the things that lose value, just as soon as you purchase them: cars, jewelry, cell phones, furniture, handbags, wedding gowns and clothing. A lot of us know this and still, we're willing to spend at least $150 a month on clothes. Not only is that a trip, but most of us end up "double wasting" our money because even with a closet full of outfits, we tend to only wear 20 percent of 'em.

Back in 1999, I was in somebody's thrift store or somebody's mall, at least a few times a month. I hate to say it, but sometimes I'd be short on a bill because I wanted another dress that I absolutely did not need. I'm still a bit more of a clothes horse than I should be, but definitely not at the risk of jacking up my credit or not having any lights on. Although I must admit that the stats are right—there are some things that I own that I've worn once, if that much.

Hmph. I can only imagine how much money I would've saved if I was more focused on investing than making sure I wasn't seen with the same thing on twice like I was on a television sitcom or something. SMDH. If you're in your 20s and reading this, you don't need most of what you've got. Put some of your money into a savings account instead of into a dresser drawer that's doing nothing but collecting dust. You'll thank me later. I promise you that.

2. It’s Not a Compliment When a Guy with a Girlfriend Wants You

If you've read even five articles that I've written on here before, you'll notice three things—I dig quotes, song lyrics/references and word definitions. Well, in true Shellie fashion, the definition for compliment is "an expression of praise, commendation, or admiration".

Way back in the day, an ex of mine once told me that my biggest issue (as far as men were concerned) was that I treated compliments like they were revelations instead of confirmations. Translation—since I didn't feel very good about myself, I was always "thankful" when a man told me that I was smart, pretty or sexy.

He was spot-on. Shoot, that's how he was able to get some (more on that in a bit). And because men were able to "fill me up" in the places where I was empty, it didn't really matter if he was seeing someone or not—if I was attracted to him and he was attracted to me, I found it to be high praise if he found me desirable.

Lord. If I could first hug and then shake my 25-year-old self, I would let her know that a man who's checking for you who has a woman is nothing to be impressed with. If he truly saw your worth, he'd admire you from afar because he'd know that you deserve a man who could give all of himself; not just some horny guy who spits game to see if he can get his itches scratched.

3. Get Yourself a Tax Account (and Attorney, If Necessary)

If 2019 hasn't done anything else, it has been exposing people and their ish left and right. I believe it was Bill Clinton who once said, "Tell all of your business before someone else exaggerates it." That said, I am very open about the fact that the IRS doesn't like me and I don't like it. It all started around 1997 when I got a job that gave me a 1099 that I didn't know quite what to do with. Then, I found myself seeing more of those tax forms than I ever did a W-2. Anyone who does contract or freelance work knows exactly where I am coming from.

Listen, working from home is a wonderful thing. But if you're going to do contract/freelance work, do you and your financial future a favor and find you an accountant; someone who can help you to structure your finances and keep your taxes in check. The sooner you do that, the better. Oh, and if things get too out of hand, a tax attorney can't hurt either.

Otherwise, you'll be like me—not only be on never-ending IRS payment plans, but wondering if you'll ever see a tax return again. #doubtit

4. Stop Befriending People Who Expect You to Do Most of the Work

Something that I make sure to say, just as often as I can, is don't let people tell you that you shouldn't expect reciprocity in your relationships because you absolutely should. For years, I would hear people say, "Shellie, if you have to keep tabs on what someone is or isn't doing, you aren't giving for the right reasons." Nooooo…the real deal is if I have to keep tabs at all, they aren't doing enough, the giving/receiving ratio is way off and somebody is being taken for granted (umm, me).

I stayed in this pattern for most of my life, really. A lot of codependents were in my space, I'm a survivor of abuse and my self-esteem used to be pretty low, so I thought being loved meant doing whatever someone wanted me to do and tolerating the crumbs that they gave in return. Oh, the drama and heartache that I could've been spared, had I learned what real friendship looks and lives like and I released those who didn't fit the bill.

The users and manipulators that I encountered? It wasn't all their fault. If I had been my own friend, I would've set a better standard for myself. I was nowhere near knowing this in my 20s, but I am on top of this lesson now. 100 percent.

5. Some of the Most Toxic People Are So-Called Church Folks. Find God for Yourself.

Writer Shellie R. Warren

Cody Uhls

Don't think I've missed the irony in the fact that, for as long as I've been abstinent (going on 13 years now), that I've been out of church that long as well. In church, I was a broken mess. Out of church, I am healthier than I've ever been. For the record, I consider myself to be a disciple (John 8:31-32) and since I am one, there's no way I can be "anti-church"; it's just that, I don't support counterfeit, dysfunctional or toxic versions of it. And, for many years, on both Sabbath and Sunday, that was my experience (if you are a church-goer, two great reads are The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship That Actually Changes Lives and Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices).

Since I've been out, it's been amazingly refreshing to learn about THE GOD as opposed to a God version that so many religious leaders wanted to push on me, based on their own perspectives, experiences and sometimes, even their ego. With the freedom that I have now, I've actually come to adore Scripture and spirituality on an entirely different level. And for the skeptics who think I've become "woke", the Bible does not teach "a white man's religion". The Bible is an eastern culture book; most of it happened in the Middle East and Egypt. Don't let these…white evangelicals fool you.

Anyway, knowing what I know now, I definitely would've told my 25-year-old self to not let people dictate what one's spiritual journey should look like. If I had come to that conclusion before my early 30s, I'd probably be even further along in my walk now. These days, I don't defend what I'm doing. There's absolutely no need. I simply advise folks to calm down and "watch the fruit" (Matthew 12:33). Oh, and I also remind them of a dope Oswald Chambers quote—"Never try to make your experience a principle for others but allow God to be as creative and original with others as He is with you." Amen? Amen.

6. Recycling’s Good—Except When It Comes to Dudes

Not too long ago, while being interviewed, someone asked me if, at this point in my life, was I afraid that I'd never get married; you know, because of my age. NOPE. One explanation for why I'm not worried, fearful or anxious is found another article I wrote last year—"Let's Settle this 'Black Women Don't Get Married' Thing Once & for All". According to it, I'm in my prime for getting married. Another reason why I'm not stressin' out is because I know me. Although it's different strokes for different folks, I'm not the kind of woman who will announce that I met a man, fell in love and got engaged in six months. No, I need to know, know, know, know, know you. And really getting to know someone? How did Mariah Carey once put it? "Love Takes Time". So, why get stressed out over something that won't happen overnight?

However, I will say that it's one thing to have the desire to know someone. It's another to settle so deep into the folks that you already know that you don't branch out and meet new people. Because a lot of my former sex partners were also friends, in many ways, I felt so comfortable in their space (both physically as well as emotionally) that I kept dealing with them. Over and over again. It was pretty much like I was recycling them. While it meant that I knew what I was getting into, what it also meant was I was remaining in a relational cul-de-sac and, for the most part, not getting anywhere.

25-year-old Shellie, recycling is great for the planet. Not necessarily the best thing for your love life, though. It's OK to get rid of some dudes. And open yourself up to some new possibilities.

7. The Sooner You Draw Boundaries with Your Family the Better

A few months back, I penned a piece entitled "Why You Should Be Unapologetic About Setting Boundaries with Toxic Family Members". Listen, I don't know if it's residual PTSD from slavery or what but this misguided loyalty to people who abuse us just because they are our blood has got to stop. If anyone should be a safe place, if anyone should be held to a high standard, it should be our kinfolk. When they mistreat us, for the sake of our health, sanity and the future of the generations to follow, boundaries (limits) must be set.

Just a couple of weeks ago, a close friend of mine said to me, "Shellie, you've always been fabulous. But I must say that since you have removed certain family members from your life, you're a lot easier to deal with." I bet. Due to my past abuse—physical, verbal, sexual, psychological, neglect—I found myself on a constant roller coaster of anger and fear. Those types of emotions can make you semi-paranoid and controlling. Now that I see what I needed to remove in order to be my best self and live my best life, why would I incorporate "that" back into my world, simply because it's "family"?

Love and forgiveness are important. So are security and sanity. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't have both. Boundaries will give you both. If I had accepted that when it came to several of my family members two decades ago, this woosah that I have would've been a part of my life way back then.

That's OK. Ain't no way I'm giving it up now. Lesson learned.

8. Your Final Abortion Is Gonna Be One of Your Greatest Regrets

Remember the ex I was talking about earlier? Back in the late fall of 1999, I found out I was pregnant with his child. December 4, 1999, I had my fourth and final abortion. The following year, he had a little girl with someone else. I'm not gonna shift blame or play the victim because he couldn't make me do anything. But I will say that it's always been fascinating to me that the same man who told me he wasn't ready for a baby is the same man who impregnated and married someone else literally 12 months later.

Every time I talk about my final abortion, I tell people that I know—that I know that I know—that I heard God tell me, "You don't want to do this. I promise, you don't want to do this." I did it anyway, thinking that even if consequences came, I had plenty of time to become a mom.

I'm 45 now. I'm still not a mother. I've made peace with that, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't regret that cold winter's day in some random city in Kentucky. Yeah, if I could talk to my 25-year-old self, I'd tell her that 20 years goes by a lot faster than you might think so, don't make choices assuming you have all of the time in the world. You don't. And definitely don't do something simply because a guy wants you to. What you need is bigger than what he wants. Period.

9. Your God-Given Gift Will Never Betray You

I haven't had an office job since 2000. The last time I did was the first and only time that I got fired. I took that as a sign that I needed to stop ignoring my passion for writing and figure out how I could make an actual living from it. At the time, I didn't have a car or a computer, so I bummed rides over to a family friend's home, got on their PC and looked for people who would let me write for them, for free, so that I could build up my resume.

It worked. I started off doing some relationship Q&A, then features and then, in 2002, Denene Millner (an editor for the now-defunct-but-then-was-oh-so-dope Honey magazine) gave me a shot. I wrote a piece about what it was like to get an abortion at a man's request, only for him to turn around and have a baby with someone else a year later (all things work together, y'all). Around that same time, I started having a feature column in another magazine called Relevant. They published my first book in 2004. 15 years ago this month. And, as they say, the rest is history.

If I had more confidence in my voice, my experiences and my writing gift, I wouldn't have jacked off my college years, worked dead-end jobs or probably got into half of the situationships that I did out of sheer inner frustration and boredom. So, yeah…if I could do about 30 years back over again, I would've started doing what I did in 2000 then.

The lesson here—God will make sure our gifts, talents and calling will take care of us. That's a part of the reason why He gave it to us in the first place (some 20-something-year-old needed to hear that).

10. Worry Changes Nothing. Peace Alters Everything.

Writer Shellie R. Warren

Cody Uhls

George Bernard Shaw once said, "People become attached to their burdens sometimes more than the burdens are attached to them." Indeed. Yeah, if church folks want to focus on what's a sin, WORRY IS A SIN. It's in the Bible (Matthew 6). Signs that you're a worrier? You create movies in your head out of things that haven't happened yet. You lean on the side of the negative most of the time. You don't take risks because you believe they won't work out. You make real problems out of hypothetical situations. You stress out for no good reason (there's never a truly good reason, by the way). You're tense, anxious and, oftentimes to the people around you, it's annoying.

I grew up around chronic worriers and so, for a really long time, I had no idea how to appropriately cope with challenges, waiting seasons or bad news. It caused me to make financially poor decisions, to use sex as a coping mechanism and to put myself on random emotional roller coaster rides.

These days, my life is very different. After learning what the Hebrew word for peace (shalom) really means, that's what I strive to have in my life on a daily basis—"completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord".

One of my favorite people died at the top of the year. During the last 12-16 months of her life, we discussed how much stress consumed her and ultimately attacked her health. There are plenty of studies to support that stress is the #1 health problem that Americans have. Nothing is worth sacrificing your well-being for.

So yeah, if I could tell my 25-year-old self anything else, it would be "Baby girl, no matter what or who it is, they ain't worth the stress. If it's not bringing wholeness, health, peace, safety, prosperity, rest and harmony into your life, LET IT GO. Ultimately, it means you no good." Your health, your lack of wrinkles and your sense of sanity will thank you in about 20 more years.

And you know what, y'all? It absolutely does.

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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