Your 20s are known as a time of self-discovery, when we learn countless life lessons (like what kind of job you want, where you want to live, and who you do not want to date). For many people, a crucial part of that self-discovery is therapy, especially during a defining decade with so many life changes. So who better to ask what our 20s are all about than a therapist herself? Kristen Gingrich LCSW, CADC, CCS, a licensed therapist known for her “no B.S. approach” to therapy and mental health, is beloved by her Instagram and TikTok communities for being the go-to voice for Gen-Z and Millennials alike. As a 20-something myself, I had to grill her for all the best lessons she learned in her 20s. Here’s what she said:
1. “People may never be what you expect them to be (good and bad)”
In your 20s, you might realize that what you thought you knew about the world and people you idolized may be wrong. You may learn things you were sheltered from as a kid, you might grow apart from friends or family members, and you could be let down by people you thought would always have your back. But this is true for the reverse too: You’ll learn that “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a lesson you were taught as a kid, but you really start to learn it in your 20s. For example, the people you thought you would never get along with might become your best friends or the job you always thought was never for you might be exactly what you want. Let people (and situations) show you who they are and don’t judge anything or anyone before giving them a chance.
2. “Healing takes time—sometimes even more time than it took to cause the hurt”
You may feel impatient to be healed or move on from pain in your life, but you will probably still have moments where it comes back up. “We get so focused on wanting to feel better now and we want the pain gone now, but it takes a lot of unlearning,” Gingrich said. “Many of us have a lot of learned behaviors we’ve used to protect ourselves after we experience hurt, so it takes time to change those behaviors.” Healing isn’t linear, and you have to be active in your healing. Instead of hoping to just get over it or try to forget about it, think of healing as an active practice. Go to therapy, identify how to care for yourself, seek out support from the people you love, and forgive who you need to (including yourself).
3. “You can find your family in other relationships”
Of course family is important, but the good thing about growing up, moving out of your home, and meeting a lot of new people is that you can find your family in other people besides who you are biologically related to. Gingrich reminds her clients that your 20s are the perfect time to reassess your familial relationships. Are there boundaries you want to set in order to protect your own well-being or maybe even relationships you need to put less energy into? We often feel obligation to our family members, but in reality, our #1 priority should be to live our happiest, truest life and not to follow through on familial responsibilities. Bottom line: Family is defined by the people who love who you truly are and make you feel happy.
4. “Comparison really is the thief of joy”
Gingrich spent a lot of her life comparing herself to everyone else, asking, “Why am I not as smart, skinny, or pretty as this other person?” like most of us do. But while middle school and high school might have taught you to fit in, your 20s can teach you to just be OK with who you are. “I’m awesome, I love myself, and I have bad days,” Gingrich said. “But now, I own who I am and there is no one else like me, so comparing myself to someone else is a waste of my time.” Of course, avoiding comparisons to other people, whether it’s in appearance, personality, career, or even financial status, takes a lot of practice and mindfulness, but the good news (as Gingrich assured me) is that it gets easier as you get older.
5. “You won’t always have your shit together”
When we’re 18 years old, we’re told to figure out what we want to do for the rest of our lives. How can anyone be expected to make that decision when they’re so young—or really at any point in their lives when we should always be growing? “I thought I would have my shit together when I was in my 20s, but now I don’t even know what ‘having my shit together’ means,” Gingrich said. Especially in the age of social media, we think everyone else has their shit together because of all the posted curated content that makes us think they look better, eat better, live in nicer homes, or are happier. In reality, everyone else is just as much of a hot mess as you are (promise!).
6. “It’s OK to ask for help”
Gingrich recalled always feeling uncomfortable being a “burden” by asking for help. Therapy helped her realized the people in her life want to be there for her. The same way we want to be there to support our loved ones, they want to be there for us too. However, the key is not to have a significant other, best friend, or even your mom be your entire support system. Build a support system of multiple people you trust, and identify who can help in different ways. For example, your significant other might be able to be there for you when you need a laugh and de-stress, your mom might be great at career advice when you’re feeling lost, and your therapist is who you go to with any anxiety that comes up. Be OK asking for help, but ask for help and seek support from more than one person.
7. “No one judges you nearly as often as you think they do”
Get ready for an ego check: Feeling insecure about the zit on your chin and don’t want to go in public? No one is going to see, care about, or think about the zit as much as you think they will. If you’re worrying about a conversation you had or overthinking a drunken night out, nobody cares about your actions that much—in the best way possible. Your loved ones care about you emotionally, but they do not care about the zit on your chin or overthink something you said during an intoxicated night out. If you’re worried about feeling judged, remember that everyone else is too busy worrying about what other people are thinking of them to overthink you too.
8. “You might become an entirely different person in your 20s (and that’s a good thing!)”
If you’re continuing to grow your entire life (as we are all meant to), you will probably be very different year to year and decade to decade. But you might notice an even greater transformation in your 20s when you’re moving away from home, starting a family, graduating college, getting in more serious relationships, or progressing through your career. Maybe you even look back on vintage Facebook posts from when you were younger and feel embarrassed about what you posted or cannot believe you used to act or look the way you did as a kid. Maybe a younger version of you wouldn’t believe where you are (or who you are) today. Gingrich believes that your 20s are when you learn the most about yourself, so you are growing into more of who you’re meant to be. “Screw what anyone thinks of you and be authentically you!”
9. “Teenage you lied—30 isn’t old”
Gingrich laughed that while she sleeps a little more and hangovers don’t roll off as easily as they did at 21, you don’t finally feel “grown up” when you hit 30 like you thought you would as a teenager. Your 30s are not when you magically hit that picket-white-fence life or feel established in your career. You are still learning, growing, and having fun at 30. You learn so much in your 20s, but it doesn’t stop on your 30th birthday. People are always changing, growing, and learning life lessons through every decade.