Looking back at the start of my career, fresh out of university and full of excitement at the opportunities that lay ahead, it felt like I was frequently dismissed as ‘too young’ to be taken seriously.
While frustrating and discouraging at times, at least I could comfort myself with the idea that I still had plenty of time to prove myself and achieve everything I wanted to.
One unremarkable day, it felt like my ‘young professional’ badge was revoked, and I was thrust into the world of the ‘real adults’.
My career and personal life suddenly felt loaded with pressure, as if a stopwatch had been set with a finite amount of time to become the best version of myself.
I started to panic about whether my career was where it ‘should’ be and whether my relationships, health and finances were heading in the right direction.
I also felt a mounting expectation to suddenly possess an unshakable sense of security in myself and what I stood for. Yet, I felt just as confused as ever.
Expectations of women are ‘more prescriptive’
Dr Lillian Nejad, a clinical psychologist at Omnipsych, believes that people of all genders feel pressure to reach certain milestones by their thirties, but that women often have greater tendencies towards perfectionism, causing heightened stress and anxiety at the prospect of not achieving their goals.
“Not only do they [women] judge themselves more harshly, but their decisions, choices and behaviours are under the constant scrutiny of others,” explained Dr Nejad.
“Although gender roles are changing, the expectations of women societally continue to be more prescriptive, especially when it comes to relationships, family and appearance.”
Despite significant progress towards greater gender equity, women still face barriers including the gender pay gap, judgement about whether to have children, and pressure from the media and the beauty industry regarding their appearance.
In the face of all these challenges, it’s not surprising that women are burnt out, overwhelmed and struggling with feelings of inadequacy or failure.
“Even if we have managed to accomplish most of our goals and aspirations by our thirties, there is pressure to balance it all — be the perfect wife, mother, colleague, keep the perfect home, and look great as well,” said Dr Nejad.
Such extreme societal expectations make it near impossible for women to feel any sense of peace or contentment with their lives and can lead to a constant state of chasing the next source of reassurance that we are achieving enough.
The comparison trap
Mindfully making important decisions about your life can be very difficult if you’re constantly worrying about time running out.
Adopting a fixed mindset about what a successful life looks like can also prevent you from being open to new and exciting possibilities if they don’t fit into the time parameters you envisioned for yourself.
On the other hand, having goals that can evolve and shift can help you stay more open to unexpected opportunities that may arise, while building resilience and the ability to adapt to change.
The rise of social media is another contributor to the performance anxiety plaguing women in their thirties.
Relentless exposure to a carefully curated online highlight reel of other people’s seemingly perfect lives, happy relationships and fulfilling careers can have a devastating impact on our own life satisfaction if we succumb to the trap of comparison.
Dr Nejad explained that because women in their thirties today have grown up with social media, the comparison of themselves to others on a global scale has become deeply ingrained and habitual.
“The input from social media during a person’s developmental period has a role in shaping our identity and may make us more vulnerable to idealised messages and flawless images that have the potential to negatively influence the way we feel about ourselves, how we fit in to the world, and how we measure up in comparison to others,” she said.
Women face very real barriers
Dr Nejad believes that while a positive mindset and self-compassion is always a valuable practice, the crisis facing women in their thirties is also attributable to very real, systemic barriers to success and happiness that continue to hold women back.
“Women have to contend with living in a world where they are not valued equally in the workforce,” said Dr Nejad.
Even those who manage to break the glass ceiling and achieve executive status in their profession are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression than their male counterparts.
“If that wasn’t enough, women in their thirties are also contending with ageing in a youth-obsessed world. Constantly comparing themselves and trying to live up to an airbrushed, photoshopped ideal is exhausting and disheartening. This puts women in a defensive position, and this constant state of hypervigilance can lead to physical and mental health problems.”
Reconnect to values to find satisfaction
Even if you somehow overcome all these psychological, political, and social barriers, and achieve everything you set out to, you may still struggle with feeling dissatisfied and unaccomplished.
Dr Nejad explained that, while goal setting has value, being overly attached to certain outcomes can create a negative cycle of feeling unfulfilled, restless, and out of touch with our true purpose.
“This can happen when we are only focused on achieving our goals and not focused enough on our values,” she said.
“When we live our lives according to our values, then we can feel content whether or not we reach our goals, because we feel good about who we are and what we are doing.”
Dr Nejad explained that over-reliance on external sources of validation, like professional accolades or being praised for your skills, can be a manifestation of deep-rooted insecurity.
“It’s important to learn to validate your own feelings, needs and wants because then you start trusting and accepting yourself,” she said.
“When you fully accept yourself, you create a path toward a life that is shaped by choices that genuinely reflect who you are and want you want.”
If you feel like you’ve been on a hamster wheel, trying to achieve enough to finally feel satisfied with your life, Dr Nejad suggests reconnecting to what really matters to you, and remembering that there is not a single way to live a good life.
Learning to live with disappointment, setbacks, and the ebb and flow of the human experience is not easy, but worth the effort.
Persevering in your journey to self-acceptance can help you cultivate a deeper, more supportive relationship with yourself, your goals and those around you.
“The most important thing is to know what is truly important to you and to progress toward your goals in a way that feels right and reflects who you are,” said Dr Nejad.
“This is your life, so live it according to your own values, wants and needs, not anyone else’s.”