Freshman year marks the time many college students go through a self-discovery phase. You uncover a passion for dining hall tater tots, realize that dating a senior is not the move, and meet more people unlike you than you ever have before. I nailed down the non-dating stuff then, but because I was in a relationship for the first half of college, my romantic reckoning didn’t happen until junior year. Elliot* was the first guy I met at school, and we fell into a relationship almost right away. When we broke up the next summer, it only took me a couple months to become exclusive with Spencer*. That lasted until he graduated at the end of the school year, and there I was, a rising junior and single for the first time in college. What I’ve learned in the year since was worth waiting for.

1. Dating is a live-and-learn kind of game.

My first failed attempt at the whole casual dating thing came when I was set up with Ethan* for my sorority’s date party. He was charming and cute, and we had an amazing time. We saw each other over the next few weeks, often for Netflix and chill chicken nugget dates. But, the communication started to peter out. And then there was no communication at all. I realized that I had been ghosted for the first time. I thought, What now? Do I ignore him when I see him? Do we pretend that this never happened? Well, it turns out you get to decide those things. It was awkward at first, but every time I said hello to Ethan in passing, I felt a little bit more in control of the situation. In the process, I conquered this limbo state of discomfort and proved to myself I could deal with the confusion that comes with dating.

My second challenge arose from my struggle to read cues. Tom* and I had been seeing each other casually for a few weeks. We hung out at parties, and he came over for my poorly cooked mac ‘n’ cheese (as you can see, I have a very balanced diet).Then, he suddenly stopped replying to my messages. I took this as a sign that he wasn’t interested anymore, and because I was afraid of being ghosted again, I immediately broke things off and told him we’d be better off as just friends. It turns out he was actually just having a rough week. I had made the wrong call and let my fear and confusion dictate the situation. I won’t do that again.

2. I am capable of taking care of myself.

As a serial monogamist, I got so used to relying on another person for advice that I forgot how to respond to problems on my own. This was the hardest part of my transition into singledom — I had to trust myself to make the right calls and become more confident in my decisions. For me, this ability came when I showed myself a little compassion. I stopped focusing on how I could be better and instead concentrated on how I could make myself happier.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have a few solid months of feeling completely lost. My first post-breakup flirting session ended with me telling the guy I thought we should be friends after he asked for my number. Even though I was totally into him, I wasn’t confident that he would actually text me, so I gave up. At times, I felt a little hopeless in the romantic department. But, slow growth is still growth, and it forced me to adapt to a new way of dating in college. I decided that the next time a dating opportunity presented itself, I was going to try. And I did.

3. Say no so you can say yes.

When I started to say no, I leaned into my independence. In doing so, I began to figure out what I did and did not want in a relationship. It was the first step in moving on from what wasn’t working. I gained respect for the value of my time, and I felt OK about ending things with people who were on a different page than I was.

All those nos ultimately gave me the ability to say yes. I had a blank slate to reshape my dating life. If I wanted to explore more casual flings, I could. If I wanted to try having a bit of alone time, I could. It offered me the ability to dictate and control the types of situations I was in, and the extent to which I wanted to carry them out.

4. It’s OK to change what you’re after.

Going into junior year I was looking for something casual — I wasn’t ready to be committed again. That’s what I got with Jake*, a senior who, after a difficult breakup of his own, also had no interest in a relationship. After a few months as close friends, we became the poster children for casual flings. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the dating scene and meeting more people. However, as the months passed, I found myself longing for something more stable and serious.

At that point, I decided to have a conversation with Jake and end things. I wasn’t ready to go full-on girlfriend status again with someone else, but I wanted to try the type of dating where I could develop feelings. I took it upon myself to ask people out to coffee rather than to stop by anytime for a chicken nugget dinner. My wants and needs shifted, so the way I did things had to change, too. It’s not just different people who require something different, it’s the same people at different moments.

This year hasn’t been easy for me, but I’m grateful for this period of independence. Shoutout to Elliot, Spencer, Ethan, Tom, and Jake. Thank u, next (year).

*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.