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I’m 21 and Just Graduated College. Why Do I Feel So Behind?

I’m 21 and Just Graduated College. Why Do I Feel So Behind?

For some of us, finishing university does not always look like a sleek transition into full-time employment and a gleaming new chapter known as “adulthood”. Even with the freedom of living without academic stress, the reality is sometimes more disheartening.

As someone who did not anticipate the mental struggle that came with undergoing the shift from being a student, then you will understand when I say, I am living one day at a time. For one, there’s the disturbance to your peace whenever you’re asked whether you have landed that shiny, new job. Next, there’s the impending existential crisis that comes with having full autonomy over the next course of your life. Not to mention the loneliness that crawls in when your friends also endeavour on their own individual journeys to build their own futures. Let me not forget the constant comparison made by family members who brag constantly about their son or daughter with the £30k starting salary. I say this to say that if you’ve also recently graduated this year and have found yourself in a whirlwind of uncertainty, you are not alone. 

Let’s begin with the question every undergraduate most likely loathes by now -“what now?” Although speaking for myself, I am sure those alike will agree that this is an extremely triggering question. It was almost as if the moment I clicked submit for that dissertation I unlocked a storm of questions that I was yet to give much thought to, in the midst of wanting to celebrate the completion of my degree. I remember wanting to keep the news of me making the finishing line within my household, because if I was being honest I had no clue what was to come next for me. For so long I had focused only on concluding the last three years, so much that I didn’t consider what was beyond it.

Being constantly asked what I was to do now at a time when I was not even sure of my next move only induced negative feelings as to whether I was where I needed to be in life. This, plus the look of disapproval from elders when you express that you just simply don’t know and are trying to make sense of things in your own time is enough to erode your self-esteem. The push and pull between wanting to take a break after the mental drain that comes with a degree and the fear of overstaying within unemployment were persistently pulling at me, feeling as though I could explode some days. 

The world we live in does not reward rest, it tells us that at the young age of 21 we have no time to hit pause. You’re forced into a sequel of societal pressures that make no effort to normalise working a normal job or being in your 20s and living with parents, nor that it’s okay to still need financial support. Expectations such as these are both counterproductive because what they really do is place shame on living within your means and not having all the answers at such a young age. Somewhere along the way we are taught that being a full-time barista does not constitute a ‘real job’. That we can run away from the corporate world in as many gap years as desired but eventually this time of rest must come to end as the daily nine-to-five stays calling. 

As for that existential crisis I mentioned earlier, as someone who couldn’t wait to be done with university I honestly didn’t enjoy this empty page that lay after it. When you’ve been riding the rollercoaster that swept you up and carried you through school, GCSEs, to A-levels, to university, it can be overwhelming when you are left to decide for yourself what ride to jump on next. Departed from the restraints of coursework deadlines, our lecturers and parents, it can be a frightening introduction to the “real world.” What can be a liberating time can be daunting as we are casted into society with no instructions on how we are supposed to act and with little insight as to what this “real world” consists of.

I hated that I was to be a mechanism within this world without truly knowing if I’d be merely existing or living. From a tightly structured order that told us we to go school; work tirelessly at our GCSE’s in the hope of doing enough, to being accepted into sixth form, perform well, attend a good university, attain a decent job, earn a respectable salary, buy a house and get married, and finally have children in the hope they repeat the cycle – only better. 

However, what happens when we choose to disturb this immovable timeline or atleast subscribe to it in a different order? I personally checked out right around the “attain a decent job”point. Rather I dared to ask myself what I truly want out of this life that is now governed solely by myself. With the profuse amount of routes to embark on and full autonomy, how was I going to choose to live? I had to abandon societal pressures to realise that much of what we consume on social media bombards us with images of peoples most successful moments, frequent holidays, and frivolous lifestyles – all of which we see without a preview of the behind the scenes. Meanwhile, ignoring the need for self development. There are many of us living the so-called dream but feeling empty, jumping from one instant thrill to the next, but unless there is harmony within us nothing will be enough. 

Whilst celebratory for the triumphs of others it can also leave us feeling somewhat defeated. But why must the value of our existence rest on how much is in our wallets or the level of education we have achieved or the person we choose as our spouses? When we choose to focus on all the external noise, somewhere along the way we lose our individuality. We stop priotisiting our own needs and navigate life not really knowing our purpose.

It is important we decide for ourselves what direction is befitting for exactly where we are now and where we want to go. Pay less attention to what everyone else expects from you and outline for yourself what you want for yourself. Journal it, create a vision board, and remain focused on being the kind of person walks in abundance. I say this to say that although it is widely understood that social media can be an illusion for what is not always the full picture, it is still easy for us to subconsciously make comparisons without context. 

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As I’ve grown I’ve come to realise that one of the biggest ironies today is that we are a society constantly looking at our phones but remain so disconnected from one another. I was not prepared for how lonely adulthood can be and learnt quickly that being alone and being lonely can become very blurred. As someone who is still learning the importance of being alone, I do believe there needs to be a balance and openness about loneliness. I didn’t really experience loneliness until the early months of finishing my degree. I couldn’t tell whether it was the shift of having days upon days to myself or whether I no longer had academic obligations that without realising were distracting me from the self reflection there was still to be done.

These were moments when it became clear to me both the power in asking for help and why some paths are best taken alone. Reassuring myself through what were some very uncertain times taught me that until you spend time alone you may never know if to surround yourself with people who are wholeheartedly for you or as a means to fill a space you’d rather not take up alone. It taught me to go where I am acknowledged as opposed to tolerated. Knowing what I want for myself and out of every interaction has given me room to open myself up to new connections and experiences that I may have not been able to enjoy the same way before. 

Looking around I can understand why many of us may feel behind at what should be some of the most memorable stages of our lives. That being said, it is crucial to maintain integrity and remain grateful whilst working towards creating the lives that we want. As a collective lets normalise ‘ ‘mundane jobs’’ and avoid imposing our realities on others. I have learnt it is completely normal to feel as though you are starting from a blank slate but I ask you to let go of the need to be in control because sometimes we risk interrupting divine timing.

Stop chasing, instead trust and give into life what you want to receive. Believe that the universe is aligning to ensure that the light you pour into each day will also shine on you too. Grasp that just because you haven’t seized everything now, does not mean you never will.

This is a friendly reminder to be patient with yourself wherever you are in life right now, look only onto your pathway and prioritise your pleasure. It’s not to say that some days won’t be hard but try to remain present and work through each day at your own pace. Make memories and welcome the unknown, it’ll all fall into place in due time. 

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