Having this mindset could help you avoid the dreaded quarter-life crisis
Do you ever feel like Rachel in Friends having her freakout telling her dad she doesn't want to be a shoe? Yep, me too.
I often feel empathetic towards Allen Ginsberg’s sentiment in Howl, when he expressed:
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness."
Increasingly, we hear the term "quarter-life crisis" bandied about but given the number of young people experiencing mental health issues, this is a reality for many of us in our twenties and is an issue not to be trivialised.
It seems somewhat paradoxical that in a period of ample opportunity, coupled with the energy and able-bodiement for the lucky majority of youths, the 20s can often transpire to be a labyrinth of decision making and frequently mentally draining.
As someone almost four years into this decade, I am somewhat ambivalent towards it. I often feel the pressures and expectations of societal norms, particularly in the areas of physical appearance and work, sum to create a perspective of your 20s as being a hugely transformative and defining period, a crucial crossroads whereby one wrong turn could be catastrophic. But, is there a grey area? A happy medium between treating your 20s as a throwaway period of extended teenage frivolity or viewing it as a time of crucial strategic importance for the rest of your life? I believe so.
In an age where the female body is almost currency, the pressure to look a certain way has never been more difficult to drown out. "What I wouldn’t give to be young and beautiful in my 20s again" is a comment I hear frequently from older female relatives and it certainly seems like the decade is widely regarded as physical heyday for women.
Whilst men seem to navigate middle age and still be regarded as attractive and desirable, women are expected to seize the narrow window of the 20s while they can and a taut, toned physique has become de rigeur. Unsurprising therefore that so many of my peers, myself included, are unhappy in their own skin.
As journalist and author Emma Woolf articulates in The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control, the female body has become:
"a battleground of guilt and shame and excess and starvation. Everywhere we look, success and sexiness and happiness seem to belong to the thin".
Whilst the media has in recent times tried to pedal a pseudo self-acceptance message, there is still an overriding consensus that a thinner body is a better body. Personal dissatisfaction is certainly compounded by flawless digital images, meticulously re-touched and even though the majority of people are well aware these images are mere illusions, two-dimensional representations of beauty, we still hold ourselves up to this standard. It seems as if the wound is too deep.
Putting it simply, looking good would appear to be the first rung in the ladder to success and happiness in your 20s. Women consistently equate happiness with thinness and believe that the former is not possible until the latter is obtained. To be honest, I’m not sure what the answer to overcoming this mindset is, I’m still trying to navigate this tricky channel. The one thing that often helps me, however, is to consider that when it comes to personal appearance, we’re probably our own worse critics and "perfection" is an ever-changing goal post.
Whilst the pressure to look a certain way in your 20s is challenging, the expectation to get a "real" job is an even more daunting prospect. I remember when I finished my degree in English and history and after a mere twenty-four hours of celebrating my first class honours, was gripped with the fear of “what next?” This panic was compounded by people who would ask me, “and what are you doing with yourself?” As much as they probably meant well, Thank U, Next.
I remember being gripped with the fear of what my next move was after completing my MA. I was keen to carve a niche for myself but I wasn’t sure how. English, as I was frankly reminded by one guidance counsellor, is not a career in and of itself and being "a bit of a wordsmith" wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
I just kept trying, keeping my avenues open and working hard. I applied for and secured this internship, but my career is just beginning. In the field of writing, opportunities are limited and I often wonder, is it naïve to be a bit of a dreamer in the current era?
In her twenties, my mum was working with the Irish National Ballet, pursuing her passion whilst simultaneously managing to eke out a living. A close friend of mine has a burning ambition to become a successful actor and I am constantly amazed by her courage to swim against the tide and pursue that which would seem unattainable.
There seems to be a common denominator between the two - underneath the shiny dream, is a steely determination and a fierce work ethic. It seems that the universe rewards this unique pairing, the courage to dream and the grit to succeed.
Although the 20s can appear to be a decade of coulds and shoulds, I believe it can be a developmental oasis if we chose to view it in this regard. If we resist the crushing pressure to conform to a narrow perspective of how to look and behave and instead work on the best version of ourselves, the dreaded quarter-life crisis can be avoided.
Like my dancer mum or my actor friend, the courage to pursue the alternative is, I believe, the key to a happy mind. As Robert Frost put it so eloquently, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less travelled by,/ And that has made all the difference."
We’re all just figuring it out, gals!