Stop Comparing Yourself & Other Lessons From My 20’s

One of my favourite movies is Garden State.

I saw it when it first came out in theatres. I was 24, going through the beginning phases of a quarter life crisis and like the characters in the film, I spent a lot of time feeling lost, disconnected, searching for answers & love. Garden State spoke to me on a deeper level. I fell in love with the movie and promptly purchased the DVD as soon as it was released. During that time in my life I’d watch the movie often – partly because I loved it, but also because I was super broke, couldn’t afford cable and it was one of the only DVDs I owned. There in tiny bachelor pad, on my tiny TV, I’d watch Andrew & Sam fall in love, and feel comforted.

I was researching the film recently for a writing assignment and found an interesting interview with Zach Braff (director and star of the film) where he said:

“I have this theory that your body goes through puberty in its teens, and the mind goes through puberty in your twenties.”

I came to a similar conclusion a few years ago. My mind (and my body to a certain extent) definitely went through a puberty of sorts in my mid-twenties. However if someone had read me that Zach Braff quote at the time, I’m sure I would have scoffed at it. This just goes to show that sometimes you need some distance from your experiences to really see them clearly.

I graduated university when I was 23 with a degree in Anthropology and English. I really loved my university experience and I wasn’t prepared for the shock to the system that happened when I graduated. Being in university allowed me to build this cushy bubble around myself. I went to class, I worked at my part time job, I studied really hard, I had fun dating and I partied with my friends on the weekends. When things went awry in my personal life I always had the consistency of school & studying to fall back on and keep me focused. When I graduated, this bubble burst and I suddenly had to deal with the “the real world”.

My room-mates and I went our separate ways and I rented a small bachelor apartment. I worked 40 hours a week, barely scraping by while looking for that illusive first “real job”. Aside from my bed, my furnishings consisted of a desk which no longer had legs, two lawn chairs and a couple of plastic storage bins. Also there was a weird scent like smelled like burning that wafted out of my kitchen cupboards for no particular reason. My life wasn’t exactly an episode of Cribs  (unless there’s an episode where a girl discovers she’s living below a meth lab then yes, my life was totally like Cribs.)

Like my living situation, my love life left something to be desired. After dating a wide assortment of unpredictable characters during university, I settled on the kite-boarder because he was older, stable, nice to me (most of the time), and seemed like a good choice on paper. Plus, dating him gave me an excuse not to hang out in my apartment. However, with 11 years between us we just weren’t right for each other  for many reasons. It wasn’t entirely his fault. Around this time I started my emotional hoarding. Although I was dating him, I was still obsessing over dudes I had dated before him who weren’t really worth my time to begin with. During this period I often felt lonely, frustrated and “stuck” (and I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t feel the same way when he was with me.)

While my mind was stuck in a mid-20’s angst death spiral, my body decided to go through a second puberty – literally. Shortly after my skin started to break out painful chin acne. At a time when I  desperately wanted to feel pulled together and adult, it felt like I was wearing a bandana made of pizza. It was a huge karate chop to my self-esteem. I spent many nights sitting on the tupperware bin I used as a desk chair, eating a large bowl of ramen noodles, fervently researching severe acne removal techniques.

(I never connected the ramen noodles to the acne, however I later found out that I’m extremely sensitive to gluten and dairy. One of the symptoms: terrible break-outs. Go figure.)

The worst part about this period of my life wasn’t that most of my furniture was made from items that you could find at an abandoned construction site or that my diet mostly involved two food groups (“macaroni” and “cheese”)  – it was that I became envious of the people around me who I thought had better jobs, nicer clothes, more exciting relationships, clearer skin and what I perceived to be better lives. I’d lie awake at night thinking, “When will it ever come together for me? When will it be my turn? When will my real life begin?”

I knew I had to take action but I didn’t know where to start. I think that’s part of the post-university 20-something conundrum – there are so many choices, options and challenges, that it can seem completely overwhelming and insurmountable. It’s enough to make you just go numb. That was my solution to the problem, until it wasn’t.

I’m not going to try and sugar coat this and tell you guys that there was this one “aha” moment that forced me out of my quarter life crisis. To be honest, it actually took several years of experiences, learning and work to really put my quarter life crisis behind me.

A few years later I went back to school to take some part-time classes. I remember the day one of my profs told the class:

“Don’t measure yourself against someone else’s yardstick” 

It’s stuck with me ever since.

When you’re in your 20’s you’re trying to establish your place in the world as an adult and it’s so easy to look to other people to gage your progress. I can’t count how many times I allowed myself to feel bad about myself because I didn’t have my “dream job” yet, or an advanced degree like so & so, or own a condo like ______, or make as much money as ____ who worked in _____ career. Did I actually want a career in ________ ? NO. So why was I  allowing myself to feel bad about it?! Everyone is on their own individual path. What’s right for one person isn’t necessarily  right for you. Keeping a running tally of who has what doesn’t do you any justice. Once I truly embraced this, I felt a lot better.

By not constantly comparing myself to other people, I had so much more energy to actually. do. stuff. 

A few things that have also  become really apparent as a 30-something:  Things change. What’s true in your mid 20’s might be totally different in your early 30’s.

My friends who struggled in their 20’s like did, are now thriving. They’re now designing, creating, writing & starting careers in fields they are really passionate about.  The couples with the enviable “perfect relationships” – a lot of them are still together, however an equal amount are getting divorced and finding greater happiness with new partners that they are way more compatible with. Many of my friends who had their “dream job” at 25, are now looking into new options: embracing parenthood, switching careers, opening yoga studios – you name it. I still have friends who make infinitely more money than I do, however when it comes to my career they are supportive & encouraging beyond belief. This makes me realize it was never a competition to begin with.

You’re probably wondering why I’m thinking about all this right now. The truth is I’m selling my couch that I have in storage in Toronto. Some history on the couch: when I finally got that first “real job” and received my first bonus cheque, I bid my lawn chairs goodbye and invested in some actual furniture. My 25th birthday present to myself was a pretty black leather couch from Ikea. I was so proud of that sofa so much because it made me feel like I was finally a real adult. I was no longer sitting on lawn chairs! I had real furniture! I had arrived! The other day my friend texted me to say that she’d found a guy who was willing to buy the couch for $70 and I winced slightly. It’s weird to put a price on something that once meant so much to you, however I know I need to let it go. For a long time I used things – bank account balances, furniture, fancy purses, jewelry – as a way to bench mark my success and compare myself to people around me. However, in the end there is something to be said about letting go of “keeping up with the Jones'” and just doing your own thing. I no longer need the physical “stuff” to remind me I’m an adult. I’m enough on my own. Maybe that’s what growing up is all about: realizing this & throwing away the yardstick.

xox

S.

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