This decade might be one of the hardest decades of your entire life. It’s just fucking hard. There’s no way around it. I know it looks like everyone else is having more fun or doing more important things, but trust me, they’re all miserable, too. They’ve told me themselves.
This is the motivational speech I give to all of my clients between the ages of 21-27 at some point. I know, I know. It sounds terribly bleak. But hear me out. You might get to breathe a sigh of relief by the end.
My twenties were brutal.
For the entire decade, I was convinced I was doing it wrong and missing out on something important. All I could see were all the things I was not: not out of school yet, not gainfully employed, not a success, not having fun, not in shape, not healthy, not a homeowner, not a mother, not married, not even dating, not a kid but not really an adult either. I suffered; my mental health and my physical health both completely collapsed—not once, but several times—and while my support system held together when I needed it to, it wasn’t pretty. For large swaths of that decade, I was unable to work full-time. I was brutally poor. Some months, I could barely afford to feed myself; some months, I don’t know how I managed to pay rent. An oil change was a financial catastrophe that sent my anxiety skyrocketing, and eating at Chick-Fil-A once a month was decadence beyond my wildest dreams. I was surrounded by friends, but I was lonely, so crushingly lonely. I was working as hard as I could, and getting nowhere. I felt so far behind my peers.
But you know what? Looking back, I can see that I was normal. Sure, some things went a little worse than average, but some things went a little better than average, too. And all those feelings of loneliness, of failure, of missing out, of feeling totally lost, those were normal, too.
We have this myth in our culture that your twenties are an exciting decade of partying, adventure, romance, and carefree self-discovery, all while rapidly advancing in your career and making more money than you know what to do with. But it’s complete and utter nonsense. This myth just makes all of us feel bad about ourselves. If you’re partying and adventuring, you feel like you ought to be in graduate school or chasing a promotion. If you’re building your career, you feel like you ought to be out having fun. If you know what you want to do with your life, you feel like you’ll never get there. If you have no idea what you want to do with your life, you feel like you’re faking this whole grownup thing.
You know what your twenties actually are? Adolescence 2.0.
I’m serious. And I'm not trying to make fun of you; neurologically speaking, adolescence extends until about age 26, when your prefrontal cortex is finally done developing and you at last have a mature, adult brain. So the fact that you still feel like a kid inside? That awkward, out-of-place feeling you can’t shake? It’s biological. You’re just not done growing yet. This is the sequel to your teenage years. And eventually, it will end.
What I want to tell every miserable, impoverished, lonely, depressed 20-something is this: It gets better. Everything gets better. Your finances, your friendships, your relationship with your body, your stress, your confidence, your cooking skills, your ability to spot red flags in a relationship—it all gets better. Eventually, this will end. The rest of your life isn’t going to feel like this. I promise.
Why are your twenties so damn hard? Neurological development is only part of it. Some of the reasons are systemic; the stress of coming of age in a country that’s violently divided, trying to figure out how to support yourself in a broken economy, and finding purpose on a planet that’s rapidly cooking is not insignificant. Some of the reasons are cultural; the expectation that you leave your family unit and become independent at 18 or 21 or even 25 is frankly ridiculous, and quite unusual compared to other cultures across the world and throughout history. Some of the reasons are psychological; sifting through the major influences in your life and discovering what your values really are is scary, especially if it means you no longer fit in with your family or your community.
But the reason that gets the most airtime in my office? Parents.
By the time you’ve reached your twenties, you’ve usually had just enough psychological and literal space from your parents to start to see them as real people. They are no longer the archetypal Mother or Father; they are regular humans with histories, traumas, unmet needs, complicated motivations, bad habits, and imperfect relationships. You’re starting to piece together the impact they’ve had on your life, and it hasn’t all been good. In fact, you’re starting to think that they might be the reason you’re so screwed up and miserable—and your therapist seems to agree! And to make things worse, your parents are having a really hard time recognizing that you’re not their little kid anymore; they’re all up in your business, pushing boundaries and meddling with your life.
Listen. I want to tell you something. No, your parents are not perfect. Yes, they are the reason you’re so screwed up. But they were doing the best they could. And someday, when you get the chance to screw up your own kids, you’ll understand. Your parents need your help right now. They are terrified for you. They’re afraid they’ll lose you, afraid you’ll throw away all the values they tried so hard to instill in you, afraid you’ll make all the same mistakes they did. They don’t know how to do this transition, how to cultivate an adult relationship with you after so many years of changing your diapers and driving you to soccer practice and making all of your important decisions for you. This decade just snuck up on them, and they are really struggling. Not quite as much as you’re struggling, but still. This is hard for them, too.
So here is what you can do, for both of you: They need you to coach them. They need you to be an adult, to set boundaries and to hold them while they push back, just like they did for you when you were a teenager. They need you to check in with them every once in a while. They need to know they still matter in your life, because you will always be what matters most to them. They need to know that you’ll forgive them—maybe not just yet, but eventually—because they didn’t mean to hurt you as badly as they did. They were trying their best. They want you to know that, though they may have no idea how to say it.
The next few years are going to be a little messy between you guys, as you all learn to love in new ways. But you can figure this out.
It’s okay that you still feel like you need your parents.
It’s also okay to recognize that there may be ways you need them that they will never be able to meet for you. That’s part of becoming an adult: grappling with the deficits and learning to re-parent yourself in all the ways you needed but didn’t get. Your parents may or may not have ever done that grappling and re-parenting for themselves. If they haven’t, your job is going to be a little harder. Well, no, it’ll be a lot harder. You’re going to be angry for a while. That’s okay. You have a right to be angry—and it’s safe to be angry, even if no one ever told you that before. Be as angry as you need to be; you have to get all the pain, grief, and fury out of your body before there will be room for beautiful possibilities.
Here is the hardest part: It is not your parents’ job to fix you. It was their job to raise you, and no matter how badly they messed it up, that job is done now. It is your job to fix you. It is your responsibility to acknowledge your wounds, to heal, to grow. No amount of remorse or apology or amends from your parents can do that for you—and you may never get the relational repair that you’re longing for. But you can still heal. That’s the miracle of it. Your parents aren’t in control anymore, so your healing is entirely up to you. No amount of shenanigans from them can stop it if you’re really committed to the process.
The healing will be hard work. There may even be some genuine anguish involved. But I promise you, if you do it now, if you don’t drag your feet and put it off and hope the pain goes away on its own, your thirties are going to be amazing.
You have an incredible life ahead of you. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.
Your 30-something therapist