Congratulations to all of you college grads out there! You made it through four or more years of cramming for tests, writing papers, late nights studying (and other late night activities), hangovers, morning classes, dining hall food or top ramen and boxed macaroni and cheese. You also had a lot of unforgettable experiences, made lifetime friends, learned an amazing amount of material, grew tremendously as a person, became more independent, and perhaps became inspired about your life direction, prepared for your future, and got ready to take on the world. You really should be commended!
Now you are free to make your own choices, find your path, design your future, and pave your way. For some, this transition may have been easy. Perhaps a job was out there with your name on it. Perhaps you already seem to have found your life partner. Maybe you are one of the lucky ones that settled right into life after college and are feeling happy and fulfilled. Maybe you are happy to be free and unencumbered, and are taking this time to travel, volunteer, enjoy life, experiment with different interests, or just plain take a break.
But what if you are one of the majority of college grads who are still not so sure what to do with this diploma and all of this freedom? What if you cannot find a job in your chosen career? Or what if your major was interesting, but did not help you find a job, much less a career? What if you are coming off of a relationship that recently ended due to graduation and different geographical locations or other complicating factors? You may be the type of person who cannot enjoy life without some structure, or you simply may not be able to afford not to work. Perhaps you are one of the many college graduates who are experiencing depression, anxiety, addiction of some kind, or another mental illness.
Did you have to return to live with your parents because you cannot afford other arrangements or because you are having a difficult time emotionally? Perhaps your parents are loving and supportive, but they seem worried about you, or are putting pressure on you to figure out what you are going “to do with your life?” These are just a few of the myriad of pressures that often hit after graduation. In addition, many people are lonely, confused, feeling lost, and think that everyone else they know is doing much better than they are with the adjustment to life after college.
First of all, recognize that you are certainly not alone. Fifty-eight percent of college graduates move back home for a time after graduating, and 32% remain there for more than a year, according to the 2006 “Life After College” survey by Experience Inc., a Massachusetts-based company that provides career services to link college grads with jobs. I would expect that these percentages are higher now given the very uncertain economy and limited number of available jobs. Those who do take the leap to living on their own right after college often experience the loss of structure that college life or living at home brings to be unsettling, according to Alexandra Robbins, author of Conquering the Quarterlife Crisis (Perigee Trade, October 2004). Robbins found that after college, 20-somethings living on their own often reported feeling “like they had no anchor.”
Second, try to look at this stage as a time of transition. You do not have to have it all settled by a certain age. The right job, your life partner, where you will settle down, having children (if this is what you choose) will all come in time, and you have more of it then you realize. An imagined age by which you feel you should do something (get married, find the ideal career path, have children, etc.) just puts unnecessary pressure on yourself and sets you up for failure. Remember that life unfolds as we live it. It’s helpful to have plans, goals, and dreams, but these are just guide posts as you walk along your life path. Nothing is set in stone, and the more flexible and patient you can be with yourself and life’s process, the calmer and happier you will be. This attitude will also help keep you from making poor decisions because you are in a rush to reach your goal by the predetermined age. Don’t let other peoples’ timetables sway you into thinking you are taking too long to achieve a particular benchmark. Comparison to others is always skewed. How things appear on the outside is not always how the other person is experiencing them. It may look exciting and glamorous to get married at 24 like your friend, but this is no guarantee of happiness, and you cannot force a romantic and life-long connection to happen on your schedule.
Though it’s important not to put pressure on yourself to reach particular milestones by certain ages, it’s also crucial not to let yourself get too stuck. It’s common to feel overwhelmed by all of the decisions to be made and to feel afraid to make choices. Inertia just feeds on itself. So, the less you do, the more you will feel stuck and overwhelmed. It really doesn’t matter what direction you go in as long as you go in some direction. It’s always better to be heading somewhere than just to be wallowing in the fact that you’re stuck. So make smaller, manageable goals that you have control over. If you are not able to make any movement and you feel very stuck, seek the help of a professional therapist and perhaps a support group. Take care of yourself and don’t abuse drugs or alcohol to avoid the emotional pain you might be feeling. Try things, but do not feel bad if you decide something is not for you and you’d rather go in another direction.
The 20’s are a time for trying on different adult roles and relationships. Allow yourself to take this time to experiment with different paths and see what seems to fit best for you. Consider that the “mistakes” you might make now will help you to avoid future, more irreparable mistakes. In other words, these trials with different roles now are a way to get to know yourself better so that you do not find yourself in 10 or 20 years in a bad marriage, a job you do not like, and with the responsibility of several kids and a mortgage. There are no guarantees for happiness in life, but the more you allow yourself to explore and try out various options now, the better you’ll know yourself, and the more likely you’ll eventually find a fit for you that will be satisfying for years to come.
To get through this time, it is very helpful if you can find others who are struggling with similar choices and decisions. It is crucial to not be isolated. It is harder to find friends after college, particularly if you are unemployed, so you will have to take some initiative and seek them out. Look for a young adult support group, or for activities that you enjoy which might include other people. Many cities have a “Meet In” website (ie: Meet in Portland) where you can find group activities that may interest you, and where you can meet others who are interested in the same things. Start your own peer book club, or computer club. There are many resources for gathering people together with today’s technology. You may have to reach out, or look for others who may be reaching out. The less isolated you feel, the more you will see that many other people your age are dealing with similar issues, and there is nothing unusual or wrong with the struggles you are facing.
This is a challenging time to be young and starting out in the world, but trust that you will find your way in time. Try not to let yourself get too discouraged. There will be plenty of time in the future to be settled, and if seen as an opportunity, this is the time to really have the freedom to explore and get to know who you are and where your life is headed!
© Copyright 2011 by By Colleen Burke-Sivers, MA, therapist in Portland, Oregon. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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