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The Twenty-Something Panic

By Emilia Crnjak

So, you’re 20-something and you’re in a panic: after years of goal setting and constant striving you find yourself asking, now what? You just graduated and you feel the pressure to find a job and start paying off college loans, so you find a job—and not just any job, but a job in your field, in what you actually majored in, which seems like some sort of miracle—and yet a year and a half into this 9-5 autopilot grind, you can’t help but feel like it isn’t.

You compare yourself to your friends: the one writing for a travel guide and teaching spin classes in Berlin, the one living in New York City and traveling the world as a flight attendant, the one teaching English in Thailand—and you can’t help but feel like you’re missing out. You discuss this with a former professor over dinner one night who reassures you and tells you that those same friends traveling the world and living abroad likely look at your own life with longing and see comfort and stability, instead of dullness and monotony, which makes you feel slightly better, if only for a moment.

And so you encourage yourself to take a step back from all the social comparison you’re used to, and instead, recognize the privilege of your position: you were able to go college, and then grad school. You have a salaried job with benefits and health insurance and what you think is a 401K, (but you can’t actually be sure because you don’t ever really take the time to read any of the mail you get from Fidelity) and isn’t that essentially the American Dream? Or at least the post-grad 20-something dream? After all, you’re not unemployed and living in your mother’s basement, so you can’t feel that bad, can you? But you do feel bad, but in a different way: you feel bad for complaining about how unfulfilled you feel at times when you know that education is a privilege and you’ve been lucky enough to not have to deal with too many barriers to achieve that privilege, and yet you still can’t help but feel so unhappy and lonely at times as if you’re wallowing in this FOMO-filled void, as if there is something missing.

And so you continue to discuss this void with others: this time with your friend, the flight attendant, when she visits for the weekend. She reassures you and quotes her horoscope which reads, “sometimes it is better to climb the same mountain a thousand times, than to climb a thousand different mountains” and again, you feel slightly better for a moment as you re-read this newspaper horoscope’s words of wisdom and think about how your job and routine are like waking up and climbing the same mountain. But this all dissipates as soon as your friend starts telling you of her many artist and writer friends, people who sound more like characters from stories who have interesting names and are traveling across the country and working odd side jobs like selling Christmas trees in the winter to make ends meet while they pursue their artistic talents and creative projects—and your friend just lights up as she describes them and becomes even more animated than her usual lively self as she speaks of these people who so evidently inspire her, and you can’t help but feel like you are nothing like them.

Quietly, you admit half sarcastically (but mostly depreciatingly) to your friend that she would never talk about you in this manner or describe you in this way, and you instantly regret saying this because you hate your tendency to say self-depreciating things out loud that force others to comfort you and tell you how “actually great” you are, and despite the fact that you know this about yourself you still do this, (maybe because your mom never told you or showed you that you were enough, amongst other things) and because of these deeply rooted mommy issues that make you constantly second guess yourself and your self-worth, this is what plays out as your friend makes an effort to help you feel better and says, endearingly, that she describes you as: her amazing friend who cuddles sick children in kindness and love, and you don’t have the heart to tell her how much this description defeats you, because you think that this must be how most people who don’t fully understand what you do view your job as, and how most days, despite giving everything, you still come home feeling like you haven’t given enough.

But the more logical part of you knows that she doesn’t say this to hurt you or invalidate the work that you do, (and you hope that if she were to read this, that she wouldn’t be mad at you for illogically thinking this way) because you know you feel defeated not because of her words, but because that’s how you’ve been feeling lately—and yet the less logical and less rational part of you goes down this rabbit hole of projecting your own insecurities onto how you think she perceives you: that you are likely her most boring friend who simply works at a big pediatric hospital in Boston and still lives in the same city where you all went to college in, and how you were the one who never left, and how dull your life is, and how you’re not nearly as cool as all of her artist friends who sell Christmas trees in the winter in small mountain towns outside of Seattle, and how you feel like you are never good enough.

But what does that even mean, to be good enough? To be a good enough friend, or daughter, or lover? To be good enough at our jobs? To be a good enough human being? Who created the rule book that justifies our self-worth? Our parents? Our cultures? The movies and TV shows with all too many unrealistic character dichotomies to live up to? Or is it our own insecurities and self-consciousness? The tiny voice inside our heads that constantly tells us to try harder, to do better, to be better; that same voice that makes us criticize anything and second guess everything?

I don’t have any answers. And now, I’ve completely lost track of what I was even trying to get at in the first place, what it is that I’m trying to tell you, what I’m trying so hard to say—but that’s the nuance of writing and the uniquely human ability to express ourselves in words, isn’t it? That things aren’t always straight forward: that we weave around in these weird spiraled paths that lead us to different places from where we intended to go when we first started, and maybe new and different meanings emerge along the way because saying what we really mean is a paradoxically arduous and simple task all at the same time, and it really is as if we are all just trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes and words and connection are the closest things we have to opening the door and seeing more of each other than what we can see through that tiny keyhole; and even though we can’t always say what we really mean or feel (and that is maddeningly frustrating at times and arguable mostly why we fight or misunderstand each other) we are not alone in this experience and we’re all just doing the best we can, aren’t we?

And now I realize that I’ve really gotten off track here and that even though this started with the notion of a twenty-something panic and the FOMO struggle that is real, maybe this isn’t about that panic, but rather the hope that if this is ever worthy of someone publishing it or reading it that maybe I would realize that I’m not the only one who goes off on long philosophical (sometimes confusing and non-linear) tangents that may or may not makes sense; I’m not the only one who sometimes feels unsatisfied or unhappy with my job, that I’m not the only one that compares my life to lives of my friends, and sometimes wishes that my life could be more like theirs, or that I could be spontaneous like them. I’m not the only one who’s too scared to risk leaving the comfort zone of my life and the stability and familiarity of a routine; I’m not the only one with mommy issues, or daddy issues, or Issues; I’m not the only hopeless-romantic single girl out there who is scared that I will never fall in love and that I’ll be alone forever and that the closest thing I will ever have to a boyfriend is my cat, George. I’m not the only one who second guesses herself often, if not most of the time. I’m not only one with insecurities and idiosyncrasies. I’m not the only one who sometimes looks in the mirror and doesn’t like what she sees. I’m not the only one who complains about things that I can or cannot change. I’m not the only one who feels sad sometimes, or lonely. I’m not the only one who doesn’t feel good enough. I’m not the only one; and maybe there is someone out there who just might read this and think: I am with you and you are not alone.

Emilia Crnjak (Churn-yak) is a Capricorn who currently lives in Brookline with her cat, George. She graduated with her Masters from Wheelock College in 2017 and currently works as a certified child life specialist in Boston. Her research has been published in the Association of Child Life Professionals quarterly bulletin. “The Twenty-Something Panic” is her first essay. You can follow her and George on Instagram at @literallyemilia.

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