I'm not twentysomething -- not even close. But I am fortunate to know a lot of bright, sweet, beautiful and talented people who are. At the beginning of this New Year, I offer these thoughts for all of you twentysomethings out there.
You are in a major life transition. Perhaps you are just out of college, back in school, looking for work, in an entry level position or even working in your dream job as a young professional. The good news is that you are now assumed to be a functioning grown-up. That of course is the bad news, too.
Virtually all of you are really, for the first time, learning to find a meaningful way to support yourself, manage your personal and financial lives and figure out not only what you want from life, but how to get it. For many, your life experience up to this point, including all those expensive college courses, has not even begun to help you know what to do after you get up in the morning. Others know what to do, but really wonder if it's the right thing for you.
Depending on your specific circumstances and your outlook, this standing-at-the-crossroads time can appear as any number of things: an emergency, requiring prompt action, an impasse, a pinch, a predicament, a failure OR a possibility, a milestone and an opportunity. It is a period that can last a day, a week or more than a decade.
I like to think of an emergency as a situation in which something is in process of emerging: the butterfly from the cocoon, the chick from the egg. It is natural. Emergence only becomes a true emergency if the process gets stuck or shut down. Then the blossoming of the human potential cannot take place. What is trying to emerge is our true self and a way to live fully as a responsible creative adult. You have to find a way out of the cocoon, and once out, how to fly- perhaps even to soar.
As we look closer at this process, let's start with the assumption that there isn't anything wrong with you. What you are experiencing is instinctual, normal, difficult, exhausting and also potentially exhilarating. You may feel discouraged, anxious, depressed, overly confident, joyful, adventurous or unrealistic -- or all of these within a day. Everyone's responses are individual. There is no one right way to do this.
You come to the twenties with essentially three influences that you use to get your bearings:
1 Past Patterns learned from your family's guidance and your life experience. Some family patterns support your growth into this next stage, just as it has before. Some of it, however, may inhibit a sense of independence and personal responsibility (think helicopter parents). As you confront challenges on your own, you often look to the past and behave in ways that you are most familiar and comfortable with. But that behavior may be based in relationships where you were trying to please others and were dependent upon them for approval and material support.
Clinging to the old ways can make you feel less empowered to forge your own path as an adult. For example, it is easy to transfer the parent/child behavior to a new boss. But you are not his/her child and she/he is not your parent.
Or, you head in the opposite direction, by rebelling and fighting the patterns, the guidance, and restrictions. This way doesn't really free you either. Both are responses to patterns of the past that we carry with us mentally and emotionally. Rebelling may feel empowering, because a little self-righteousness can be pretty heady and energizing. But you are still locked in the same pattern. New kinds of interactions need to emerge.
2 Social and cultural pressures, expectation and limitations. You are facing the worst economic times in two generations, in the midst of dangerous and uncertain worldwide political upheaval, and an environmental crisis that threatens our future on this planet. The luxury of time and resource that your parents felt at this stage are not readily available or apparent. You are expected, among others things, to fix the planet, build meaningful relationships and responsible communities , stabilize and rebuild the financial system and be cool, creative, innovative, gender/race-neutral ...all without leaving a carbon footprint. These are tall orders, indeed, and which can be paralyzing or for some highly motivating.
3 Your own internal guidance system which tells you when you are on the right track.
The first two are external influences; this third influence gives us some insight into what we uniquely are directed or called to do. Most in their twenties have been carefully cultivating skills and behaviors that address the demands of the first. You can't help but feel the pressures and enormity of the second. Sometimes, you don't know how to access the third to get a clear reading. Ultimately your own internal guidance will be the key to balance, to utilizing and addressing the other influences. Here are some suggestions for tuning in:
A. The main obstacles to positive change and transformation are your own thoughts. Identify your messages about success and failure. Learning about what you really are thinking and telling yourself can be done through journaling, conversation with a trusted friend or mentor, therapy, meditation, paying attention to your dreams, mindfulness practice, or doing such powerful practices as "The Work" by Byron Katie.
What wants to come forward in you? How are you stopping that process? What in your life supports that? What does not support that process? Unsnap those mental leashes and find out what is true for you.
B. Find out what brings you joy. There is nothing better than real life experiences to help you to discover this. And the discoveries can be surprisingly different than what you think you "should" do. Some methods include again meditation, utilizing creative activities like The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, volunteering, trying new things (taking risks-this includes at work as well), travelling, saying "yes", and meeting new people.
Sometimes it feels easiest to jump into a profession or job track in order to trade a shaky sense of self for a ready-made identity. It is good to try on new ways of being. But knowing that you are more than your job title or your uniform gives you a lot a sense of freedom and even play in this process.
From this perspective, there are no mistakes.
C. Take care of you. Don't dull your mind, body or spirit. You can't go anywhere in a car with a dead battery or flat tires. So limit the activities that sap your synapses -- you know what these are. Then remember to eat well and exercise-(I know, I know, I sound like your mom). Laugh, cry, and occasionally find a safe place to raise your voice...you are human.
If you are working long hours, taking care of yourself makes you a better contributor because you are a more complete human being. The young professional track for many seems to encourage burnout. It is not in your interest or your boss' for that to happen.
This is about training to achieve your personal best. This is your life.
D. Cultivate non-judgment and acceptance of your Self. This doesn't mean that you don't notice your flaws. It is always a good idea to know your weaknesses and your strengths. It means you don't beat yourself up over them or waste energy in anxiety, panic, defensiveness and obsession.
E. Seek and create community and draw on the resources of others for help. Don't be too picky- help is all around you if you are open to it: from your peers, your partners, your elders, your colleagues and bosses and even strangers and guardian angels. Pass along what you learn and what you receive.
F. Show up. Put one foot in front of the other. There are no real shortcuts to doing life. Call for that interview. Apply for that internship. Ask for that raise. Write that letter. Hold that hand. Climb that mountain. You will be learning how to get what you need by cultivating passion,experience, practice, skills, patience and especially courage. The world needs you to have all of these qualities.
Those of us who have lived well past the Twenties know that the process of transformation will visit us many more times in our lives- if we are lucky. There will be other patterns to examine and uncertainty and expectations to challenge us. But it will be that ever-present inner self that when nurtured and attended to, will be always be a trusted guide.
Happy trails to you...
Kay Goldstein, MA teaches meditation and writes poetry, fiction and articles addressing the challenges and joys of daily living and spiritual practice.