The Quarter-Life Crisis

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Profile Picture Predicament

It’s the middle of August and Facebook has announced that another one of your eight-hundred-and-something friends has changed their profile picture. A breathtaking panorama of Koh Tao consumes your news feed and at its centre stands a perfectly tanned and perfectly toned somebody that you vaguely recall from secondary school. You scroll down the page and this time you find evidence of a former flatmate’s adventures in Tanzania, captured in a three-minute-old profile picture. Surrounded by smiling children, they look every part the well-accomplished and wholesome individual sought after by potential employers. You close the tab and dejectedly return to working your way through every episode of Breaking Bad; the only achievement of your summer thus far (not counting your victory in an eBay bidding war for disco pants).

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Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking these things just happen. The mental effort some people devote to selecting a profile picture would leave Annie Leibovitz in awe. As evidence, the following is a list of questions that I have asked myself or friends have asked me (divided into helpful categories):

  • Personal appearance – Will people notice one eye’s more closed than the other? Is my outfit too slutty? Is the lighting okay? Do I need “Valencia” or “Lo-Fi” to work their magic?
  • Appearance of others – Have I cropped out too many people? Have I cropped out enough people? Are we good enough friends for them to be in my profile picture? Will people think there’s something going on between us?
  • Timing – When was the last time I changed my profile picture? Has everyone been changing their profile pictures? What time of day best maximises “likeage” potential?
  • Perception – Does this picture make me look fun? What would an employer think? What will family think?

My nearest and dearest gal pals know that changing my profile picture is a harrowing process I prefer to avoid. While many of you won’t relate to any of the above questions, I’m equally mindful that several others share my pain… and rightly so. Although the term is so overused that it now verges on cliché, our society has well and truly become “image obsessed”. The successes of photography-based apps (Snapchat, Instagram) and the recent surge in “selfies” reflect the constant pressure today’s individuals are under to maintain their online appearance.

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Now humour me and consider a Facebook without profile pictures; it would be liberating. In an instant, Facebook would lose its inherent narcissism. While Facebook stalking may still occur, people wouldn’t be judged on their appearances but instead on their substance. Surely a better perception of a person can be drawn from what they have to say than from how they look? Yet everyday, judgements are passed on a solely aesthetic basis. RateMash – a viral website which allows university students to rate their fellow peers against each other using their Facebook profile pictures – has thrived off this infatuation we have with looks. By giving attention to such heinous websites, we’re fuelling the shallow and egocentric mentality that plagues adolescence and preventing ourselves from maturing into open-minded human beings.

The problem I have with profile pictures is not that I believe they’re self-indulgent; I think that we all need to love ourselves more and with a whole host of people waiting to pass judgement, finding a picture of yourself that you like enough to share with the world is actually quite a courageous feat. The problem I have is that they do not accurately reflect an individual but they’re given enough weight to deceive people into thinking they do. One of the first lessons we learn as children is not to “judge a book by its cover” but everyday, friends/family/employers are very quick to do so. We make assumptions about a person by allowing a picture to speak a thousand words when in reality, it may hold no truth whatsoever. Does showing off a fantastic pair of legs make you vain or slutty? No. Does a cute picture of a boy and a girl imply they must be dating? No. Does a stunning selfie make you self-obsessed? No.

In the grand scheme of things, the stress of choosing a profile picture amounts to nothing. The consideration we give it does however illustrate our insecurities, which arise from being part of a culture that is too eager to criticise. We do not struggle to compare ourselves to other people but are often disheartened by the result. We find fault in ourselves and we find fault in others. If everyone was a little less quick to judge, then perhaps changing your profile picture wouldn’t be such a predicament at all.