I have this friend who is a counselor. She works with a lot of women in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. I asked her, over coffee one day, for her thoughts on our sub-species— the young woman of the 21st century. What themes did she see on the other side of the counseling couch?
“I see a lot of young women who have so much anxiety over not having their lives figured out. Some feel this sense of panic, that things aren’t turning out the way they thought. They are frustrated with themselves that they can’t be this idealized version of themselves that they’ve created in their heads.
Others have gotten to their mid-twenties and have checked off a lot of the things on their lists. They’ve started their careers. They’re married, maybe even have children. And yet they have this sense of loss. Like what do I do now? Is this it??
What I want these women to know is that, developmentally, they’re not done yet. All of these regrets and existential crises are actually premature and unnecessary. They see their stories as already written. And that just isn’t true.”
I set my coffee cup down with an emphatic nod of my head. I felt like I was just like those women she was talking about. I have felt those panic attacks. That feeling of claustrophobia—is this all there is?! I’ve felt stuck, frustrated that the narrative I’d planned out wasn’t unfolding according to plan. I’ve been on the counseling couch, grieving over the story I was supposed to be living, but wasn’t.
And that grieving was important. I had to mourn and die to the version of myself I thought I was supposed to be. I had to come to grips that the “American Dream” wasn’t going unfold like the predictable path of a Life board game.
But just like my counselor friend pointed out, for a lot of my twenties, I assumed that my story was already written. In recent years, I’ve been surprised, daunted, encouraged, and terrified at the news that I actually had more freedom than I thought.
Finding myself in the midst of a story unfolding feels equally risky and hopeful. Especially this past year, it seems I’ve chosen the even more reckless option to “Choose Your Own Adventure.” I’ve become untethered to any sense of long-term plans or clear ideas for where I’ll be in five years, let alone three months. As I have the typical conversations with family members over the holidays (the well-intentioned questions about my Plans) the words “I don’t know” have become very familiar on my lips.
I don’t know where I’ll travel to next.
I don’t know how much longer I’ll keep traveling.
I don’t know if my freelance writing will support me.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
I don’t know the long-term plan yet.
But I do know the very next step, and I sometimes have a hazy idea of what might come after that.
So that is where I start. I’m practicing the Art of Not Having It Figured Out. I’m trying to let go of my demand to be this ideal Allie that always has the answer and never messes up. (To tell the truth, I don’t even think I’d like that girl.)
I’m finding myself replaying that conversation with my counselor friend that I had all those months ago.
It’s relieving to remember that I’m not alone in wrestling with this anxiety. That might not be what we’re presenting to each other on our filtered social media feeds. But when we encounter the gift of brave honesty, we discover we’re all wrestling self-doubt and fear.
But my friend’s observations are also a call to change the script. To insist that it is a good thing that I’m still in progress. To expose the disillusioned lie that we’re stuck and things aren’t going to get better. A whispered invitation to let go of the martyr’s crusade towards some fantasy version of perfect.
As I set my sights on a brand new year, I don’t have a twelve-step action plan to help achieve all of my goals. I’m not clinging to a specific outcome anymore. But I have a pretty clear idea of what I want.