As much as we are told to believe our twenties are too young to make lasting life choices, I see that decade as the most influential time for women. We establish habits, standards in relationships, and expectations for our lives moving forward. As we create goals in both our social and professional spheres, we should also acknowledge our mental health and put effort into caring for ourselves internally.

The stigma surrounding mental health has slowly, but steadily, faded as more people begin to vocalize their struggles and reach out to their communities to establish better resources and forums for people battling with illnesses they can’t tangible see or control. Individual coping mechanisms for mental illness are diverse–sometimes healthy and sometimes toxic. I’m not an expert on mental health, nor am I a licensed psychiatrist or counselor. So, please critically approach my words just like you should anyone else’s. I’m not going to outline a therapy plan, because I definitely can’t do that, but I do hope to offer strategies for women to heal.

1. Protect yourself from people who refuse to confront, learn from, and grow from their own traumas.

As someone who has gone through traumatic experiences, both mentally and physically, I completely understand the initial instinct to hide and suppress any and all emotions. Depression and anxiety aren’t easily communicated illnesses, and really, not many people who are going through any level of those experiences are forthcoming with their battles. So, confronting issues is easier said than done.

And with that understanding, I do have a lot of empathy for people who are struggling with their own mental health battles, but there is a difference between empathy and sympathy.

Many of my past relationships were a constant battle between taking care of myself and allowing my partner to absorb my energy like a life source.

Rather than own their self-awareness and take steps to improve their state of mind, my relationships centered on me giving over dramatic sympathy to pacify the person I was with for just a temporary fix.

During my last semester of college, I was regularly having panic attacks from the stress of a class overload, working on last minute changes to my thesis, and keeping up two jobs and an internship. If I’m being honest with myself, I was probably in the worst mental space I had ever been. I barely ate, allowed small stressors to consume me, and didn’t know how to keep myself whole. While I was working with a therapist to learn how to grow through those pressures, my then boyfriend routinely sought out my attention. He demanded that I keep up a cheerful demeanor when we were together, because he was dealing with anxiety, too, and liked it better when one of us was “put together.” That person was always me. He refused to get help because he didn’t like talking to people. Medication wasn’t an option to him because he “wanted to always feel like himself.” He wouldn’t get the help he needed and I suffered from it too.

At such an early stage in life, women in their twenties have a great space to grow in their identities and their relationships. No one person should take the brunt of another’s trauma, especially if the person willingly chooses not to accept help. There are so many instances in which women are expected to take on the caretaker role, and other people’s mental health is no exception. Being a confident and support to the  important people in your life is wonderful, but try your best to not “light yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.”

Hold those in your life accountable to accept the conditions they are given and to seek a way to change them.

2. Cut out the “Devil’s Advocate” in your mind and don’t accept it from others.

So often, in conversations or arguments, we try to justify problematic behavior or opinions by playing “Devil’s Advocate.” In this theory, someone who is passionate about a cause or expresses a genuine emotion is challenged by someone attempting to discredit their point of view with the opposite opinion.

So many people in my life, many of whom were men, have played “Devil’s Advocate” when it came to decisions I made I was visibly passionate about.

“To be the Devil’s Advocate for a minute, it sounds like you just want to be the victim.”

“Well, just acting as Devil’s Advocate here, don’t you think you’re acting a little bit sensitive?”

“Look, not to be the Devil’s Advocate or anything, BUT I think . . .”

The issue that lies within these interactions is that people often aren’t attempting to show you a new perspective or voice a legitimate concern with your way of thinking. Instead, we typically see people debating for the sake of argument and speaking over very valid points of view. Whatever emotion that passes through you is a reality that you exist within, and no one should devalue that, including yourself.

3. Be proud of your small accomplishments, but don’t settle for a toxic pace in growth.

For the past eight months, I have kept a gratitude journal I write in each night. I like to list out the smaller moments in my day that I usually overlook as coincidence, luck, or dismissively mundane. Since then, I can feel my self-awareness evolve into a brighter and more welcoming complex. I found it important to find pride in the tiny, but still meaningful steps I make for a functional and productive day.

Feeling proud of making your bed each morning, pushing yourself in social situations, and completing a few minimal tasks are still significant accomplishments for so many people.

I understand how trying menial responsibilities can be, like gasping out the only energy you have stored up. But be mindful not to allow yourself to accept mediocrity because you don’t feel powerful enough in yourself to achieve what seems like a faraway goal. Do not settle into a rut out of fear of failure or overwhelming stimulation. The depth you thrive within is limitless and inspiring. You have it in you to access higher standards for your life and just repeat over and over: your dreams are attainable.

4. Seek happiness, especially when you feel trapped in yourself.

The process toward happiness when contending with mental health is not about possessing the right physical objects or grasping onto long-held relationships for validation, but rather of finding personal integrity and a sense of self-worth. Sometimes, the comfort of our pasts feels as if they are holding us together and providing little sparks of joy. The sweatshirt we got from our first relationship hangs on an old hanger in the closet. Friends who had faded from our day to day take up the majority of our social media feeds, and we follow their lives with an unhealthy edge of comparison in the back of our minds. These elements of our past can create a feeling of entrapment.

Women in their twenties are absolute magic and in one of the best transitional phases.

So, adapt to what brings you happiness, find new spaces for peace, and just as your identity is reshaped, so will your standards for happiness. It isn’t necessary to hold on to your past self or grudges or boxes you had been posited in by other people. Your growth is dependent on the ways in which you engage with the newness around you.

5. Break through the stigmas of what you “should” have by your thirties. Don’t race to a finish line you aren’t even familiar with yet.

The following is a list of things I have been told I “should” have by the time I am thirty years old:

·      At least four figures in a savings account

·      A place to live that isn’t rented or has any connection with family

·      Decent financial investments

·      An associate to senior level job

·      Traveled out of country many times

·      An established family

·      No debt (student loans, car payments, credit cards included)

·      Retinol serum in my daily skincare routine.

Now, I do agree with the last one, because good skincare really is like my holy grail.

But other than that, I call bullshit.

There is no shame in not meeting social expectations because they really are just arbitrary. Grow at the pace you need to and set individualistic goals for yourself, even if they do not align with the lists you are most likely being fed in all of the spheres in your life.

As long as you are moving forward and pushing yourself into spaces you feel fulfilled in and are not hindering someone else’s development, then feel empowered in that identity.

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