If you’re 20-something years old and consider yourself to be on the verge of an existential crisis, I can assure you you’re not alone. In the last few months, I have had identical conversations with entirely different people and, having ruled out recurrent déjà vu, I have reached the conclusion that the season of self-neglect is well underway. This blog is an amalgamation of advice I seem to be recycling, inspired by a scenario recounted by the fictional and brilliant Leo McGarry:
This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
This time last year I was in the thick of my exam-induced meltdown. Those that have read my previous blogs or were unfortunate enough to be in my presence during May/June of last year, will know that I’m referring to the self-inflicted torture that was Intermediates revision (Intermediates, by the way, are very scary exams). My appetite was non-existent, sleep was a fond but distant memory and my studying habits became obsessive. I was overwhelmed by an irrational yet unwavering fear of failure that had become so engrained that I was functioning as merely a fragment of my former self. This perhaps sounds exaggerated but I was, in essence, a miserable robot – incapable of self-belief and entirely dependent on the confidence of others that I would get through these exams. This was anxiety in its purest form but even though I had textbook symptoms and a certain degree of insight, I did absolutely nothing to help myself.
I am now far from the person I was a year ago. Having been through January and summer modules with only a few minor blips, the obvious importance of perspective has finally become clear to me. I started thinking about this blog over a month ago, when everything seemed to be going well and I was, for the most part, achieving goals that I had set myself. Since then, my blissful existence has wavered and my confidence in both friends and family has been tested for several reasons beyond my control. The former Harleen may have allowed this to affect her own self-confidence but I haven’t imploded (yet), for which I can only thank this recent revelation.
When we are in the midst of a stressful or unfortunate event, it is difficult to remove yourself from the situation or consider it with hindsight. Realistically however, what troubles you now, in a year’s time may be something you feel embarrassed to have given so much consideration. And here lies my first piece of practical advice: take the advice you would give a friend in similar circumstances. If that fails you, take comfort in the fact that life has proven repeatedly that everything truly does happen for a reason. Without negative experiences we would never learn to appreciate the happiness that we too easily take for granted and indeed, there is nothing to learn from a perfect life.
This leads onto my second concern, which is that far too many young people expect to have everything worked out by their early twenties. We are, at this point, only a quarter of the way through our life expectancy and will have spent a sizeable proportion of this time playing in mud or with fairies.
As a university graduate, you are – for the first time in your life – responsible for yourself. Your days are no longer determined by government-approved curriculums, assigned holidays or commitments of any sort. Yet limitless freedom can be overwhelming and comfort is often found in structure, so many graduates begin forming a life based on what they think is expected of them. They pursue further education because they are told that it’s what’s best, or they look for a graduate job because they are told that they should.
I see the merits of both but I have also seen my friends struggle to meet the standards they set for themselves and consequently suffer. Without grades and exam results to provide markers of progress, people become their own harshest critics – with a frequent tendency to compare themselves to others – to their own detriment. Ambition is healthy and I firmly believe that we should always aspire to be better versions of ourselves, but not if failure to acquire these ideals results in self-punishment.
Yes, you are accountable for yourself and yes, it is terrifying. In a few years however, you’ll also be responsible to a partner and with time, perhaps even to tiny humans who will rely on you for everything. We spend the rest of our lives meeting obligations to other people and making sacrifices and compromises to keep others carefree. You have time for yourself now, so why not be self-indulgent? The only responsibility you should have is for your own well-being, as that is one thing you should never have to find in others. If your “pursuit of happiness” involves working for six months at £7/hour to fund a trip around South America where you “find yourself”, so be it – you might even avoid another crisis twenty years down the line.