How to cope with my terror of uncertainty in my mid-20s
May 6, 2015 8:56 PM   Subscribe

How do I enjoy and make the most of my life, when it is so full of uncertainty? What are some strategies for tolerating and living with uncertainty, rather than being afraid of and fighting it? Details/specific situation inside

I’m going to try to ask this question that does not sound incredibly whiny and self-indulgent, though that is difficult. I’ve read a number of Ask MeFi queries over the past few years on similar themes that have provided me with a lot of comfort and perspective and so that (the second, most of all) is what I'm looking for now.

I'm a just turned 25-year old woman (my birthday was a few days ago) living in New York City. I’m single and have never really been in a serious relationship. I’ve dated casually in the past and had a number of short-term relationships/flings in the past five or six years but that’s pretty much it. Up until this most recent birthday, this was something that only bothered me periodically but since last week, somehow, it’s morphed into something terrifying and overwhelming and hugely anxiety-provoking. Sometimes, I feel winded and breathless with panic at the thought of it.

It’s not so much that I’m desperately lonely or feel that my life is empty without a partner. I have, objectively, I think, a full and satisfying life. I have a job at a nonprofit that I've been at for the past two years that I love. I have great co-workers who have become good friends, a boss I admire and view as a role model and genuinely meaningful work. I also have a very close and positive relationship with my family, a small but wonderful circle of close friends from college and in the fall, I’m starting a highly-ranked Master’s program in my field with an excellent job placement record, so I feel that I have a pretty good sense of career direction for my age.

It’s just, sometimes I project my life forward a few years and think of myself without a partner and I feel so scared. If I knew for sure that say, in a few years, I would meet someone and eventually get married, I feel I could take full advantage of all that I have now and be happy and content in being alone. There are many things I enjoy about being single, after all. But I don’t know that I will find someone eventually. I have that uncertainty and while I have it, I almost feel guilty about enjoying myself---about going out with friends, traveling, taking fun, random classes for kicks, enjoying New York, having new experiences. Sometimes when I do these things, I have a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach, like I have a test tomorrow, that I’m not studying for. I feel like I’m in a waiting room or on a long line, except I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the end.

There have been many other things I have felt this kind of uncertainty about since I graduated from college: jobs, grad school, retirement planning. And in those cases, I responded to the uncertainty and fear by doing lots of research and making productive decisions to reduce the uncertainty—opening a Roth IRA or taking the GRE or applying to grad school. With dating, this is not quite so simple. Last year, I opened OkCupid and Tinder accounts and met a ton of guys over the course of nine or ten months. I went on second dates with most of them, as they tended to be really nice and dated a handful for a few weeks to a month and one, for several months. This helped reduce my anxiety a bit, as it made me feel as thought this was something that could be planned for as systematically as retirement. Ultimately, however, none of those ‘relationships’ worked out. Weirdly, given how panicked I am about this now, I was always the one to end them. I couldn’t keep any of them going because my heart wasn’t really in it and I grew tired of making the effort.

I don’t know why exactly I’m so frightened of being single. I think part of it is that that though I’m okay with being alone now, I think I would be very lonely if I had to be this way forever, as more and more of my friends and acquaintances coupled up. I already feel a sense of terror whenever I see a new engagement announcement on Facebook, even though none of my close friends and few of my acquaintances are married. It’s also just terror of how other people will see me. Whenever I see references to older single women as “desperate” or “pathetic,” in media, it feels like a shot through my heart. And I worry that it will become harder to date and look for a partner, the older I grow. Ever since my birthday, I’ve even developed a minor obsession with the idea that I am rapidly physically aging and am constantly scrutinizing my head and face for wrinkles and gray hairs. I know very well that most or all of this is in my head. I don’t look any different that I did a week ago. But our culture is not kind to older single women and some part of me is terrified that I am close to missing my window, however irrational I know this to be. I’m also so scared of disappointing and hurting my parents. I come from a conservative, very achievement-oriented Indian immigrant family and went to a pressure cooker Ivy League school and grades and achievement and measuring progress by numbers has always been a fixation for me and for all my family and many of the people I grew up with. It’s just, one prepares for tests by studying for them. It’s easy to reduce the uncertainty regarding how well you will do. But you cannot apply this principle so easily in any aspect of your emotional life. I may never fall in love. I may never get married. How do I tolerate and live with that agonizing uncertainty, rather than waste this period of my life, fighting it? Every year I grow older, this terror seems to get worse and worse and I want to learn how to better cope with it.
posted by armadillo1224 to Human Relations (25 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
You ask a big question and I will not pretend I know half the answer. Your wish to be sure that you will end up married so you can just relax now really resonates with me as does your typical strategy of dealing with issues by research and action. The only very small piece of advice I can give you is to read this book. It has been many years since I read it but I remember being comforted by it. Hope it helps you in a small way and that others will have more compete advice.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 9:12 PM on May 6, 2015

Hmm link didn't work on my phone...Maybe copy paste the text below...
posted by Tandem Affinity at 9:13 PM on May 6, 2015

It seems you're just... worrying too much. You sound a bit young to worry about your "biological clock". :D

As Tuvok (the Vulcan) once said on Star Trek: Voyager... "In accepting the inevitable, one finds peace." As the future will happen regardless of your actions, why would you not accept simply... what will be, instead of worry about it so much?

Muslims also have an expression... Inshallah, which literally translates to "It is God's will." In other words, it will happen, or it won't. Why worry about it?

Furthermore, there really is no point in "scheduling" something as whimsical as "finding a partner". It's just too... regimental? Rigid? Instead, focus on enjoying your work and your life. And occasionally go out and have fun. Remember, all work and no play makes a dull girl! :D Maybe you'll run into a Mr. Right (or Ms. Right, I don't know which way you lean) out there.
posted by kschang at 9:29 PM on May 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I became single after an eight year relationship when I was 29. Theoretically and what was happening to women all around me, this should have been the age when I was panicking about being an old maid going into my thirties. I decided to take the opposite approach.

I told myself that it was very, very likely that within a few years I would meet someone and decide to settle down and most likely after that there would be kids and my life would then essentially follow a certain path where the mystery and spontaneity would lessen a lot. Keeping that in mind, I would have to make the most of single life now.

And you know what, that was basically EXACTLY what happened. Two years later I met a guy, then got married. Now I have a three and half year old and a almost two year old. And no, I'm not a psychic. But statistically, odds are you will meet someone. You will settle down and have kids. And this is your chance to be spontaneous. Once you're married, for most people, there are no more first kisses, or butterflies in the stomach about that new date. It's much harder to go off on a whim for a dirty weekend.

This is your chance to make memories for when the baby is up all night for the fourth time that week and you wonder if your life will ever go back to normal (and no, no it won't.)

I'm making married life sound horrible and it's actually lovely but it does map your life out to a certain extent, you know that you'll be with your spouse/child doing this or that chances are in the same location for a long time.

Being single is all about possibilities. I wouldn't have missed it for the world and I made sure I took advantage of it because it will probably be over before you know it. So kiss that guy, travel to that weird place, dance on the tables and meet new people. Trust me, revel in it - the you in ten or fifteen years will thank you for it.
posted by Jubey at 9:37 PM on May 6, 2015 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I am more than double your age, so take this for what it is worth, but at 25 I was at the tail end of a long relationship that we both knew was going to end sooner rather than later. The uncertainty of a future without someone after being with someone for 5+ years, was a lot to bear.

Ultimately, after much thought, I decided that I had two choices. One, live in fear. Two, embrace the uncertainty. I chose the latter. I looked at every evening out, every group friend event as an adventure where I might meet someone but also might just learn something and/or enjoy myself. It is pretty basic, but I just chose to embrace the wonder of what new exciting or insane adventure I would have that night. This was before online dating, but I went on a lot of blind date setups. Talk about surrealistic adventures!

The other thing I found was that anxiety or happiness or whatever your inner feelings are at the time, do manifest themselves in how you project yourself to others. I just met more people I liked when I was happy or content inside. When I was anxious about something, I tended to somehow convey that inadvertently.

As a parent, I can tell you that it is likely that while your parents have high expectations for you, I would be willing to bet big money that they would rather see you single and happy than married and miserable. My only goal for my three kids is for them to be happy in whatever they choose to do.

So, for all the reasons you listed about why your life now is good and your future bright, embrace that. You will find someone when you are least expecting it so be ready.
posted by AugustWest at 10:20 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Decide what qualities are needed in a good partner, then go find someone with those qualities. People romanticize love: you wouldn't tell someone to just "do what you love" in choosing a good job, but most people would. Listen to your gut that it's time to figure this out.

Look for someone through friends of friends; OKC and Tinder are mostly for hookups which are almost always a distraction from marriage. Only consider guys who are up-front about wanting to get married in the next 2 years if they meet the right person. Look for a match where you both think the other person is a "catch" or slightly more attractive.

I could keep spouting advice but what I'm saying is that your gut is telling you to find someone. Most people will tell you that love is a's not, and believing it is leads to relationships that don't go anywhere (for many women) or an unexpected it's-not-you-it's-me breakup (for many men). It sounds like trusting fate doesn't fit your personality, so make fate come to you.
posted by sninctown at 10:57 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm sure most of us grew up thinking falling in love and getting married and having kids was a given---something that would just happen. I know a few women and it happened for them, some of them ended up divorced, some of them married way old guys and are the second wife with the second crop of kids for the old guys, some were in long term relationships through their 20s and are kind of exhausted because they know how much work it can be (me right here) and not a lot of the guys seem worth the effort.

So you end up without a partner or end up with one. Either way, what's really important is to take care of yourself, love your life, love yourself, and don't waste time on dummies.

You cut these dummies out of your life, that's a really important skill to have, honestly, for a young woman. Whatever it is, be confident that that dude wasn't the one for you. Because had you kept dating any of those guys, you may be having to compromise and clean up after the wrong guy constantly, share a bathroom with a guy who just fits on the crapper for 2 hours or can't manage to take out the trash until you remind him. You are too young for the second shift of chores.

You have to kiss a ton of frogs or dummies or whatever. You're ahead of the game.
posted by discopolo at 11:04 PM on May 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

I started writing a really long reply, but then I realised it boiled down to one thing: read Pema Chodron. Oh, and go to therapy. Your anxiety and the things you're anxious about are separate things. You can't control when and where you'll meet someone special, but you *can* get a handle on your anxiety, and learn to live with uncertainty, so that you (a) feel better and (b) make mindful, rather than fear-driven, decisions about your romantic life.

Good luck. Being 25 is actually the worst.
posted by nerdfish at 1:26 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

You are still quite young, and I suspect you will meet someone in due time and fall in love.

That said, your question seems to me to be about a deeper issue, which is how to deal with the fact that there are elements of your life that are not controllable. You can control how hard you work, how well you plan, you can put money in your retirement fund and so forth, but you can't prevent aging, death, whether you meet someone you really like, and other X factors. And that is a major issue. That's pretty much THE major issue for someone who has as much self-discipline and ambition as you appear to. You can do everything right and still suffer -- in fact it's almost guaranteed. This week's example of that is Sheryl Sandberg. She went to Harvard and is practically a billionaire, and she had a very considered marriage and two children and an amazing job, and now she's a 45-year-old widow. Uncertainty is everywhere.

And I think grappling with uncertainty -- what will it be like to age? To be alone? To be imperfect? To live in an unpredictable world? Is something that you will have to deal with whether you meet Mister Right tomorrow or not. It's a major existential question.

In my experience, trying to accept and cope with uncertainty has made my life richer. More frightening, but more full, too. There is so much about life that cannot be controlled or quantified, and in that very tenuousness and unpredictability, you also find much that is vital and precious. People have been grappling with this for centuries -- maybe check out Marcus Aurelius, or read Ecclesiastes, or Pema Chodron. Take some slow walks and really look at things around you.

And go to a few more parties! I think it's always easier to make a real, lasting connection with someone you met organically through friends, than someone you meet through a formal online dating scenario. Good luck, armadillo1224.
posted by sockanalia at 1:31 AM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Your issue seems to be more dealing with anxiety than the actual question of whether you will in fact get married, settle down, etc. like others here have suggested, I think it would be useful to focus more on addressing the anxiety and learning to distance yourself from it and less on the actual content of what the anxiety is saying. I am an anxious person by nature (something that I only discovered and articulated in the past five years or so - I'm 31), and when I look back on my twenties, one of my regrets (there are not a ton of them, but this is one) is the amount of time I spent stressing out over various things (this question about having a relationship included), when I could have been putting that energy into enjoying my life as I experienced it. Not saying there was no enjoyment of the experiences happening, but I think that the concept of letting my anxiety just exist and not getting caught up in it is something that I only came across in recent years. It's useful for me, because no matter how great things are going, I always can find something to worry about.

An example/elaboration: Your current situation seems kind of analagous to my stress about body image. I had a lot of weight issues growing up and always struggled with my body image. Sometime in my twenties, I came across the body acceptance movement, which I generally think is a great thing. I read a lot of books about it, read online forums, etc. all of these resources told me that once I learned to accept my body, I would be at peace with the body image question. However, as much as I tried, while on an objective level I could look at myself in the mirror and think, "I accept myself, and I love my body," and know that there was truth to that statement, there was always some part of me that would surface now and again that didn't believe it and thought I was inadequate because I didn't look exactly like what society wanted me to look like. I was always kind of mad at myself that I couldn't seem to make the leap to really believing that I was beautiful and that I still worried/thought about my looks. More recently, I have begun to have some appreciation for the fact that there are kind of two parts of me: one part that is bombarded with negative messages from the media or from other people about body image and is naturally and understandably prone to get anxious about it, and one part that rationally knows that I'm okay the way I am and that not having a perfect body does not mean I can't date or exist without shame in society and accepts whatever imperfections that I might have. The lesson for me is that I really have no control over what the first half of me thinks; it is always going to do its wonky worrying thing. My current sense of confidence and peace about this issue is based on the fact that I know that the second part of me is capable of doing a rational analysis of the situation, and can ultimately say to the first part of me: "it's okay that you exist, but I know you are mostly just a product of my anxiety and some external messages I'm receiving. I, on the other hand, choose to accept myself." Like that, I now can experience the body image anxiety, but not base my self worth on it or on whether or not I experience it.

Okay, the whole analogy went a bit far afield from your question, but my point is this: just because you feel anxious about this question does not mean that you have to get lost in that anxiety. You can still feel the anxiety but know that it is just the product of some weird mental processes that you can't control and are understandably made worse by things like people getting engaged on your facebook feed or society's belief that the best way to live your life is to get married, settle down, have kids, etc. Just let the first half of your brain sing its little song and say to yourself, "Fuck it, I know that the world won't end if I never meet someone (although it is completely possible that I will at some point). I'm just going to focus on enjoying my life right now as much as I can because it is already pretty great."

Practical advice: look into therapy if you think it would be helpful. I also recommend mindfulness meditation.
posted by knownfossils at 3:03 AM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Do you think perhaps you romanticise being in a relationship because it's something you haven't really experienced?

My advice would be to try to focus as much as you can on all that you have. The reality is, as you move through life, even starting in your Masters program, you'll meet people, potentially eligible partners. The other reality of life is, meeting someone can happen at any moment, it can't really be predicted.

This may sound like meaningless advice, but, try to enjoy your youth without defining yourself as single. If you're a successful young woman, it may take some time to meet someone worthy of yourself and your achievements. And please know, you are so young :)
posted by NatalieWood at 4:33 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have always dealt with uncertainty by considering the worst case scenario and working out what I would do and how I would cope with it. It's confronting, but I've always found that once I have a plan for what I'd do if it all went to hell in a handbag, I can let it go and stop worrying about it.

What would your life look like if you lived it single? What opportunities would it bring and what challenges? What approach would you take to dealing with some of society's more objectionable expectations? Those sorts of questions. I'm obviously not asking you to answer them here, but I've found this approach works for quite a lot of people in reducing that kind of anxiety. YMMV of course. Oh, and incidentally, very rarely (if ever) have I (or others) had to put the worst case scenario plan into action.
posted by shonias at 4:56 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Our lives are eerily similar right down to the nyc nonprofit work and the plethora of unsatisfying second dates. I'm not sure whether or not I have any useful advice but let me know if you want to get a drink sometime and bemoan the situation!
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:58 AM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Meeting your mate or life partner is basically a random event. You might as well worry about winning the lottery. I met my wife 28 years ago as I was walking into a fraternity party that she was walking out of. If I'm 30 seconds later getting that party, or probably even 30 seconds earlier, our paths never cross, we never meet, our kids are never born, etc.

You can't win the lottery if you never play, but playing doesn't actually increase your odds of winning by any significant amount. I think it works pretty much the same for meeting a spouse. It's so random that working extra at it really doesn't improve your odds in any statistically significant manner. If you are leading a full and active life and keeping yourself open to the possibility, then you are indeed doing all you can do.
posted by COD at 5:25 AM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Life offers no assurances except that it will end. To some extent, all the worries you put forth in your question are common. Many people find religion and spirituality comforting for these issues. However, when worries start to interfere with your enjoyment of life, they are the makings of a disorder. I think a therapist could really help you out.

And definitely get a drink with showbiz_liz!
posted by zennie at 5:33 AM on May 7, 2015

Best answer: I don't think you sound whiny or self-indulgent at all. Or maybe since you sound exactly like I felt at 25, I'm more willing to forgive you. :)

Here's my take on my own situation. Take what you need and leave the rest.

Here is what it means to be a lady in 2015 - you have, in theory, absolute freedom to live the life you want. The independence that is available to you, right now, on May 7, 2015, is greater than any that has been offered to any woman, ever before, in the history of time. If you wish, you can choose to stay unmarried. To sleep with as many people as you want. To sleep with no one, ever again. To pursue any profession. To have children without a partner. To never have children. To be polyamorous. To shave your head. To stop shaving entirely. To marry a woman. To gender-transition. To refuse to identify with a gender. You can do anything.

We can't rely on our mothers' lives as models. We can't rely on conventional wisdom to tell us what to do, because the rules that guide us have never applied before. We are free, and we are feeling our way hesitantly and imperfectly into an as-yet-undefined future.

But here's the thing. Your freedom is a threat. So many people benefit from women not realizing the freedom that they have-on bowing out, on leaning back, on accepting the shit end of the stick, lower pay, unfair divides, bad deals. Of shouldering the burden of unpaid second shift work. Of switching to the mommy track right before they were about to get promoted into management positions. Of settling for a partner, a job, a salary, a life that is less than what they deserve.

In 2015, the law can't make you do that. Neither can biology, or the need to make a living. The only thing that can is culture. The voices - in the movies, in magazines, on TV, on the internet - that seem innocuous when taken individually but combine together into this deafening din that gets louder and louder as you get older, and this is what it shouts: THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO BE A WOMAN and ONLY ONE WAY TO LIVE YOUR LIFE and if you stray from that path and don't get married and don't have children and don't follow the conventional path then you are a FAILURE and TERRIBLE THINGS will happen to you and NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE YOU and EVERYONE WILL JUDGE YOU AND PITY YOU and EVERY DAY THAT GOES BY YOU ARE WORTH LESS AND LESS and YOUR ONLY VALUE IS YOUR LOOKS AND OMG YOU'RE LOSING THEM BY THE SECOND SO YOUR WORTH IS DWINDLING and you will NEVER EVER EVER BE HAPPY and you will DIE ALONE and YOUR CATS WILL EAT YOU and IT WILL BE EXACTLY WHAT YOU DESERVE.

Yo, guess what. Those voices are liars. They are trying to scare you. They are shouting as loud as they can at you because they are actually powerless to control you. They think if they scream at you as loud as they can, they can trick you into putting your head down and scurrying along the path that has been laid out for you without stopping, taking a breath, looking around you, and realizing how much freedom you have.

You can spend the rest of your life listening to those voices, or you can decide, right now, that you're never going to listen to them again. That you're going to make your own choices. Live your own life. Do what you want. Date when you want. Marry only if and when you want. Have kids only if and when you want. Put on makeup only if and when you want. Take a job only if and when you want. Do exactly what you want, when you want it. It's scarier. It's riskier. If you fail at it (and you will fail, sometimes) the voices will shout at you that it's all your fault and you should've known better and they told you what would happen. But all they can do is shout. That's the secret they want you to be too scared and distracted to notice - that they can't actually control you. That no one can control you but you.

Because you are free.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 5:49 AM on May 7, 2015 [23 favorites]

Research into brain development tells us that people's brains are still developing well into the mid020s. I can tell you, from my own experience, that around the age of 27 I started worrying a lot less about the future. I attribute this to brain development.

I think this is a normal stage of development and it will get better with time.

Aside from "hang in their while your brain finishes baking!" one thing to consider trying: Do you know what you like to do? Do you know what makes you fizz with joy? Assuming you are not depressed (which it's OK if you are, that's just a different problem to solve), you could decide to spend this time discovering as many things as you can that you find fun/joyful. And you do that by trying a lot of different things in sample sizes. The benefits: You might discover a bunch of things you love to do and while you're doing them, you won't be worrying. And on top of that, you will meet a lot of interesting people.
posted by CMcG at 6:15 AM on May 7, 2015

Reminds me of an onion article "Anxiety Resolved By Thinking About It Real Hard"

This is, as some have alluded to, the pretty classic 'quarter life crisis'. If the mid life crisis is all about guilt and looking back at what you missed, the quarter life is all about fear and looking forward at what you might screw up.

My life is not at all what I expected it to be at 25. I was wrong about most of it, both my fears and hopes were inaccurate. I'm sure my next decade will be unpredictable as well. But Things have gone well and I'm excited about what's next.

Life outside of school is a mess, a mess you are just starting to wander around, It's not a road it's an untamed landscape. Media tells all of us, but women especially, that there is a road, an escalator... a single path to Success-Happiness neatly lined with check boxes. This narrative is there so that you will buy the things necessary to keep advancing through the Ikea instructions on how to assemble an AdultLife. Other people will give you shit about these check boxes because they worked hard checking them off and therefore overvalue the process. You are 25 in NYC a place where settling down happens MUCH later than the national average. Ignore this pressure, be a geek about yourself, be self indulgent and discover what you love. Amuse yourself. There is no right way to do this and you have plenty of goddamn time.
posted by French Fry at 6:25 AM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

What if you choose to be single? I don't mean try to trick yourself into feeling that's what's happening; I mean actually consider the amount of uncertainty in relationships, marriage, family planning, etc., and conclude that you don't need that mess of anxiety right now. (You need look no further than the green to see that marriage can be chock full of uncertainty.)

I'm not suggesting you become cynical about relationships, but since you're a rational thinker and planner, you might be able to see realistically and statistically that being partnered up does not, in fact, eliminate uncertainty. You could then choose to live the life you're now otherwise enjoying and know that you are in control of that decision.

Then you could still date for fun (and it will be more fun if every date is not an interview for marriage). When at some point you fall head over heels for someone, you can re-evaluate, and if the uncertainty of entering a relationship seems worthwhile, you can choose to do that.

This way you're in the driver's seat, which seems important because the lack of control in this one area of your life is what's causing you anxiety.

And yeah, maybe do talk with a professional about your fear of the unknown, because there will be a lot of unknowns in life, and with or without a partner, you'll be better off knowing how to accept that fact.

A long while ago, I was 25 and single in NYC. I love my husband and my son, but man those were happy times, and yours can be too!
posted by whoiam at 6:46 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The problem with 25 is that you feel SO OLD. You're at a point where you now have adult memories from far enough back that you can actually feel what the passage of time does to your thoughts and experiences. It's a creepy feeling.

The other problem with 25 is you're just now completing puberty and childhood brain development. Biologically, you're experiencing the last major permanent hormonal shift you'll likely have before menopause. It sucks.

So cut yourself some slack, you're going through a lot.

The sooner you embrace the understanding that you are not owed a life free from discomfort, the quicker you will become a person whose life is not lived in service of self-soothing. Being uncomfortable is not fatal, you can live with it for a while.

Also: question your assumptions! Youth culture is hard on older women - whether they are married or not. But up here in the 40s, not giving a fuuuuuck what y'all think feels so good. I am more respected by society in general, just for not being 25, and that's a secret they don't want you to know.

Maybe you're being sold these anxieties by the wrinkle creams and magazines and all those interests that don't want you to be calm about aging and not owning enough shit. Maybe also you're buying into the strange invincibleness of twentysomethings who now truly understand that they only thought they knew everything at 17, and it turns out that it's actually 25, and that people who are 35 or (omg someone get a dust rag) 55 definitely don't know as much.

There is so much out there for older women - and you'll all get old, whether you get married or not - it's just not interesting to you at 25. That's not the same as not being interesting. We just know stuff you don't.

So maybe instead of seeking out soothing, start questioning yourself. Statistically, any goofball you marry in the next two years has a great shot at being your ex-husband one day. There ARE women who age out of childbearing years without a stable relationship, but you may have noticed you don't see them piled up on the curb in trash bags or anything. Chances are great that when you're 33 you're going to be laughing so hard at yourself right now, but you may also even then know people who are living fulfilling lives without ticking off the HUSBAND and CHILD boxes. (And still, the stats suck. You might be divorced one day.)

Consider a bigger identity than that. Uncertainty is just a thing that will always be there, but what if you defined a successful you as something more complex than just married? (When you marry, you are more likely to remain so if it's not the only thing about you that forms your identity.)
posted by Lyn Never at 8:31 AM on May 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I felt this. It sucks. I think it's very common. Honestly I'd probably still feel it if I weren't dating someone now- not constantly, but from time to time. It's like existential angst- part of the human condition. Feeling it occasionally is a sign you're still alive, conscious and human, and just accepting that helped me not beat myself up over it. Feelings are just feelings. Feelings aren't facts. It's amazing how long it took me to really figure that out. I think part of getting older and the brain fully developing is the ability to finally grasp that there is a concrete objective reality outside of yourself that just IS and you will never fully see it since you are looking through your eyes and your feelings, which are subjective traps and not a measure of reality.

The stuff about looking in the mirror and expecting to look older is nonsense. That's the only real "okay, this is abnormal anxiety and not mentally okay" thing I picked up on in your post. Work out. It helps readjust focus from what your body looks like to what it can do and what it feels like. It also keeps you healthier and better looking as a bonus.

Disappointing your family- this weighed heavily on me, too. But my boyfriend is not the perfect boyfriend they envisioned either. I sure they're glad I'm dating someone now, but for instance, my mom brought up "have you talked about religious differences?" slyly and it almost made me laugh. (Family is Christian, boyfriend is Jewish, I am a secret atheist.) Point being, there's no perfect. Ever. In life, at all. If your parents are perfectionists, you might as well give up now because you've already lost.

I recommend a huge dose of humor in your life as well. Life is absurd. You should always be able to laugh at yourself- it is one of the most precious and valuable qualities a person can have. You may need more silliness in your high-achieving life. :)
posted by quincunx at 9:41 AM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all these answers! They were hugely helpful and definitely gave me the perspective I was looking for. I am going to look into CBT and mindfulness meditation.
posted by armadillo1224 at 10:43 AM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm an actual, real live single, never-married 40 year old woman. Your greatest fear! I'm teasing you a little bit, but only because being me was my greatest fear at 25 too.

Here's what I can tell you about being single at 40:

There are more of us than media would lead you to believe.
Being single at 40 does not mean I'm going to be single for the rest of my life, although it's possible.
I'm still unhappy none of my relationships have worked out, BUT I'm so much happier than friends who are in unhappy marriages or relationships.
By the time you're 40 life has dealt everyone some tragedy. Being single is far from the greatest one. Would you rather be single or... Have a happy marriage, but your baby brother died at age 30? Have met the love of your life at 20, but he cheated on you and left you at 39? Hate your job, but be unable to leave it because you're supporting a family of four? By the time you get to this point you'll have had your heart broken one way or another regardless of whether you also have a successful relationship.
You end up being very aware that you're the only person responsible for your happiness. It's something that's true for everyone, but easier to ignore in a relationship.

Basically whether you're happy or unhappy at 40 isn't going to depend on whether you're in a relationship or not. It's going to depend on you.
posted by MsMolly at 5:42 PM on May 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

There is no end to the amount of misery that you can inflict upon yourself by worrying about conforming to societal norms. Understanding that the roots of these norms are no more sensical than the norms themselves, can be liberating. Why are women who don't marry subject to excessive scrutiny? Because heteronormativity dictates that the summation of a human life is coitus between a male and a female. Why is our culture heteronormative? Because centuries of tradition have made us believe that what is most common is the natural and essential and preordained way of the world. But as far as I'm concerned there are literally no good, rational reasons for these norms. We all have the choice to become thinking beings who consider living by internal norms that are arrived at through reason. I find it helpful to question these sorts of terrifying thoughts you are having and find the source of the terror in fear of not conforming. Then ask yourself whether conforming is an admirable goal anyways, or whether it is just the most convenient and obvious choice. I'm enjoying finding the courage to live by internal dictates and hoping that the further I get into my 20's, the stronger courage will become. I like the comment above that says life is absurd. Once you realize that society is absurd, nonsensical, you can start to live based on your inner world. Use this crisis to unfold yourself into a larger person. I hope your suffering eases soon.
posted by winterportage at 7:30 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

You are young, the world is still your oyster, but you are right to consider your future so hard. You might wish to have your future squared away by now, but I'm 39, and let me tell you that it's pretty constricting once you are locked in. It's good and bad, so just be sure and appreciate the good parts of now. I've experienced some great highs in life post-college, and some heavy lows, and it's not for the faint of heart. Good luck!
posted by Shylo at 8:44 PM on May 15, 2015

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