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20 unexpectedly brutal life lessons you’ll learn in your 20s

In a month, I’ll be turning 28. And like any other birthdays at this age, it’s always a cause for self-reflection. As intimidating as it may be, this need for introspection is eye-opening… and necessary.

Each one of you will agree:

Your 20s is the most unexpected, craziest, messiest, awesome-est, most life-defining decade of your life. Or at least it seems like it to me.

You are thrust into the world with uncompromising expectations of yourself and your life, finding out that, actually, you have less control of it than you believed.

Your belief system is challenged more than ever, and you find yourself making irrevocable, significant changes – some you never believed you’d make. You’re forced to let go of people, goals, aspirations, and even parts of yourself you’ve held dear.

Your 20s is about learning to pay your bills while trying to do what you’re passionate about. It’s about traveling to places and finding how each one of them changes you. It’s about loving people and losing them at the same breathe.

And the most amazing of all is finding out who you really are, amidst all the pain and joy, and learning to truly love yourself.

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But these lessons don’t come cheap. They’re difficult to process. But that’s what your 20s are all about.

Here are the 20 most unexpectedly brutal lessons you’ll learn in your 20s.

1. No one else will prioritize you but you.

Your family and friends are there, but they have their own lives.

But one of the most brutal lessons you’ll learn in your 20s is, essentially, you’re on your own. No one else is going to put your needs above their own.

So it’s just you.

You have to wake up every morning to achieve your goals. You have to go out there to create your own opportunities. Your happiness, well-being, and success are your responsibility.

It’s your job to fix your life.

2. You can’t control everything.

But you can control how you react.

Life won’t always go your way. That promotion you wanted? You might not get it. The person you’re dating? It might not work out. That’s just life.

No matter how much you control things, you can’t.

But you can control how it all affects you. Do you let it stop you from going after what you want? Or do you let it fuel you to do better?

How you react to life and everything that happens to you determines how you make decisions going forward.

3. You can’t love people into loving you.

You can’t convince someone to love you the way you deserve. No amount of treating someone right will make them treat you right.

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It’s either someone loves you, or they don’t. It’s either they want to stay, or they don’t.

Stop waiting for someone’s potential. Most of the time, people are who they are, and you can’t wait around for them to be who you want or need.

You have to decide what you deserve right now, and never settle for anything else.

4. It’s necessary to let go of things that don’t contribute to your happiness.

As humans, we like to form attachments to people, places, thoughts, memories, and emotions. In the process of doing so, we create a habit of hoarding them, even when they’re no longer serving their purpose.

Your 20’s will be filled with hoarding. You’ll keep people in your life, even when they’re weighing you down. You’ll hold on to your memories and thoughts, even when they’re making you depressed. And you’ll cling to your emotions because you’ll feel it’s the only way you can control them.

But you have to learn to let go of what doesn’t serve you. It is not wrong to get rid of things that no longer make you happy. You shouldn’t feel ashamed for putting yourself first.

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5. You won’t have your life figured out. But newsflash: no one else has either.

No one figures their life straight out of college. Don’t be fooled by that girl’s Instagram feed. She’s hustling to pay her bills, just like you.

Everyone is fighting their own battles. You can’t just automatically have your life figured out. In fact, you’re allowed to mess up now. If not in your 20s, then when?

6. There’s always going to be someone more successful, talented and more accomplished than you.

Everyone in your life has always told you you’re amazing and special. But the truth is, you’re not all that. Sure, you’re unique and beautiful in your own way. But society will always have its standards.

There is always going to be someone who is more attractive, more intelligent, more accomplished than you.

It does not mean you’re useless or unworthy. It’s just the way it is. So instead of trying to compete, just focus on you. Work on yourself. Compete with yourself instead.

7. Silence is a great virtue, who knew?

Not everyone wants to hear everything you have to say. You’ll realize that a lot of times, people just don’t give a sh*t. So why bother?

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You’ll learn that you’ll find peace in your silence. You don’t have to prove anything. So you don’t have to voice out every plan you have, every achievement you’ve gotten.

Silence is golden. It is in silence that you’ll know yourself, listen to yourself, and come to the biggest realizations of your life.

8. You have to trust your own process.

Everyone deals with life in their own way. What works for others may not work for you.

No matter how much advice and motivation people give you, you won’t make a change until you decide that you want to. Be it in terms of your diet, relationships, or career.

Truth is, you will never know what’s the right choice, the better choice. You just have to trust your gut, your pacing, and your process.

Do what is right for you, even if it means a longer path.

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9. You’re not fat. And people won’t like you better if you’re skinny.

Stop thinking you’re fat. Unless you’re unhealthy, you are not fat.

Stop comparing yourself to those “Instagram influencers.” Everyone is photoshopped anyway.

Develop your own relationship with food and wellness. Work out because it will contribute to your longevity without pressuring yourself to lose weight.

No one will like you differently because you’re skinny. So you might as well have that chocolate muffin.

7. Your mental health is important.

You’re not always going to be happy. You won’t wake up every morning feeling inspired, motivated, and kind to yourself.

There will be days you’ll feel like crap. There will be days you won’t be happy about your life. And that’s okay.

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That’s why you need to build a good relationship with your mental well-being.

Take a break if you need to. Visit a therapist if it will help you feel better about yourself. Your mental health is just as important as your physical well-being.

8. Discomfort is the greatest teacher.

Your biggest moments of revelation will happen when you’re put in the most uncomfortable situation. Human beings detest discomfort, which only pushes us to eliminate the feeling.

Discomfort will drive you to make big changes. It will push you to do everything in your power to get out of a difficult situation.

The phrase “going out of your comfort zone” is not underrated.

9. Who you surround yourself with can significantly affect your well-being.

This is one of the toughest lessons you’ll ever have to learn. Who you surround yourself with affects your life more than you think it does.

When those around you are negative, toxic, and unmotivated, you will become like it, too. And this doesn’t just apply to your friendships. Sometimes, you’ll face the hard truth that your family or loved ones are toxic, too.

It’s never easy to let go of people you love. But if they make you a worse version of yourself, you have to cut them loose.

10. It’s important, sometimes even necessary, to know when to say no.

Saying no is important for a healthy life. Yet it’s so hard. We find ourselves saying yes to the things we don’t want to do, more importantly, to things we don’t have to do. Because we are so afraid of not meeting expectations.

But you have to honor yourself. Why is that important?

Because when you say yes to things you don’t like doing, you become resentful. You are not honoring yourself and your needs.

It’s hard at first, but the sooner you learn how to say no, the more space you’ll have for the things you do enjoy and love.

11. You really need to sort out your finances.

Surprise! You have bills to pay. This is the most not-fun part of being an adult. But you have to learn it anyway.

Budgeting, investment, retirement plans, mortgage – these things are unavoidable. There’s no escaping them. So suck it up. Sit down and be as educated about your personal finance as possible.

The smarter you are financially, the easier your future will be.

12. F*ck perfection, just give it a go.

You don’t like making mistakes. Who does? But sometimes, our fear of making mistakes stop us from doing something amazing.

Here’s the truth anyway, no one expects you to be perfect. Your boss knows you’ll make mistakes. Your partner knows you’re not a superhero.

So just do it. Perfection comes later, mostly even never.

13. Social media can be is toxic.

Social media connects us to the world in magnificent ways. But it is also inherently toxic.

You’ll constantly be seeing greener grass. You’re sucked into a reward system that forces you to only show the pretty parts of your life. And you’ll constantly compare yourself to others.

The less time you spend on social media, the better off you’ll be.

14. It’s okay not to give a f*ck.

Nothing will make your skin thicker than living your 20’s. This is when you truly learn not to give a f*ck.

The notion is best explained in international bestselling author Mark Manson’s anti-self-help book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck.

We spend most of our lives caring too much about what other people think, that it affects how we feel about ourselves. The point: stop caring too much for the things that don’t deserve your time and energy.

15. It’s not about collecting things, it’s about creating beautiful memories.

You’re programmed to get that college degree. Then a good job. Then a house and a car. And then you end up wanting more. And more. Until you are obsessed with acquiring unnecessary things.

But do these things make you happy? Or do they make you feel empty?

You’ll learn that it’s not how many things you have that gives you meaning, it’s the memories you make, the life experiences you acquire.

16. Life is easier if you do you.

You’ve tried to be someone you’re not. And you were miserable for it.

So do you. You’re the only one responsible for your own life and happiness, so if you’re not going to be yourself, then where’s the fun in that.

17. You’ll fail. Embrace it.

You’ll fail. So many times. In fact, everyone fails.

Steve Jobs failed. Oprah failed.

Failure is hard to swallow at first. But the more you fail, the more you’ll be comfortable with it, the more you’ll thrive because of it.

Your failure is where your success is built on. Embrace it.

18. Life is not going to wait around for you, you have to get up and live it.

You’re young. You think you have all the time in the world. But you don’t.

Stop procrastinating. You are wasting precious time. Life is passing you by. Opportunities are slipping away. You won’t be young and energetic forever.

So go out there. The world won’t wait around for you. You need to start living right now. Or else, you’ll find yourself left behind.

19. Apologies mean something different now.

Saying sorry just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Who likes apologizing? No one does. We all like to hold on to our pride because we feel don’t have much left.

But sooner or later, you’ll have to stop making excuses. And you’ll have to apologize. But in your 20s, saying you’re sorry has a different meaning.

You apologize not to make yourself feel better. You do it for the person you’ve intentionally or unintentionally harmed. It means,

“I recognize and understand that you’ve been hurt by my actions, and that matters to me.”

20. You are a complex, self-contradicting, ever-evolving individual.

You’re a work-in-progress. You’re always evolving, changing, learning. How you think today won’t be the way you think tomorrow. Your beliefs will change. And sometimes you yourself will change like the weather. You’ll always contradict yourself.

And that’s the beauty of your 20’s. It’s the time in your life where you’re allowed to experiment. You’re allowed to make mistakes. This is the time to learn by failure. Sometimes it will cost a lot. But you’ll come out of it wiser, healthier, happier.

***Do you want to be a stronger person? Do you want to stare down your challenges and overcome any obstacles? If so, check out our eBook: The Art of Resilience: A Practical Guide to Mental Toughness.

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Notable replies

  1. You also have to have a sense of humor to survive. When you look at our “world” we’re born clueless, are dependent on parents who’ve had no proper training, thrown into situations that aren’t logical & best of all are supposed to graduate in 3 score & 10 years (70) to the “next” level with home & work schooling that has no rules except survival of the fittest the same as all species on earth whether plant or animal. It is a wonder we;re not all “goofy” by the end!!!

  2. I’m done with my 20’s and I’m going 32 next month. All I can say is that my 20’s is so fast, and how I wish I was just stuck in my 20’s. Just bringing up my age that I’m in my 30’s makes me feel so old. My hair is getting white. I do have lot of white hairs now. And I have high blood, fatty liver. All of diseases are now appearing in my 30’s. I’m still single and there’s a stigma against that. That if you’re in your 30’s, you’re supposed to be having a family and living a robotic life. I feel like I’m different from my peers and I haven’t enjoyed my life yet to settle down for good. All my 20’s, I was just working nonstop. I envy those who had fun life in 20’s. Sad to say, that didn’t apply to mine. If you were just working to make ends meet, you’ll hardly enjoy. And if you do have killjoy workmates. I am for the most part of my adulthood, just alone and lonely. I’m happy for those who are happy in their 20’s but I couldn’t say the same thing for myself.

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Written by Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon is a writer, poet, and blogger. She graduated with a degree in Mass Communications at the University of San Jose Recoletos. Her poetry blog, Letters To The Sea, currently has 18,000 followers. Her work has been published in different websites and poetry book anthologies. She divides her time between traveling, writing, and working on her debut poetry book.

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