I feel like I’ve wasted my 20s. What is holding me back? | Relationships

The question I’m a 29-year-old woman who has never been in a romantic relationship and right now can’t decide on a career path. I have a handful of close friends, graduated from a good university six years ago, but I end up in temporary, seasonal hospitality jobs that I work in for about six months before resigning. And as soon as I get close to someone romantically, I push them away. I feel a deep suspicion and mistrust of people getting close to me. For a long time, I felt my friendships were shallow and forced until I spent more time with my friends post-Covid.

From the ages of 13 to 17, I went through bouts of depression and anxiety, but didn’t feel able to speak to anyone about it. I was so ashamed and worried that people around me would be disappointed and angry with me, because of my low mood. At 17, I completely broke down with the weight of that.

Since then, I have been able to function with the help of some therapy, except that now I’m nearing 30, I realise I’m not really living. I’m unemployed, at home with my father after caring full-time for my mother who developed dementia. She is now in residential care, but I’ve remained at my parents’ house.

I’m worried I’ve wasted my 20s and I’m still in much the same spot at 29 as I was at 19. My friends in the meantime have bought houses, got married, started families, travelled and progressed in their careers. Why can’t I achieve this? What is holding me back? How can I work through this?

Philippa’s answer You nursed your mother full-time, you support your father – these altruistic acts might not be acknowledged as much as they should be by society, but that doesn’t make them any less worthwhile or less valuable. You were unusually young to experience dementia in a parent – such a thing might be traumatising for you. I want to say, cut yourself some slack. You haven’t had time or headspace to concentrate on yourself up until now. Now you can start to live for yourself more.

Life is not a race. Some people manage to buy homes, lose them, get married and divorced again by the time they are 30; some people don’t find meaningful work until after retirement age. It is not useful to think of life as milestones that must be met by certain ages. Life is not a boardgame and, even if it was, we do not all have the same starting point.

Regarding your love life, you are making progress here, too. You know what you are doing, you know you are scared to get close, so you are pushing potential lovers aside. You know how to use therapy, so you can go back to it and find out what is going on that makes you do this, become more aware of the impulse that makes you do it, then use your reasoning to rule your instinct. We develop defences that kept us safe at the time we needed them, but the problem is when they are no longer required they need undoing, otherwise they become self-sabotage. Breaking habits of ways of thinking and behaving, and overriding what has become instinctual, can be achieved with therapy and awareness – and you have both.

You have made progress with friendships, too. It sounds like you have worked on yourself and gone from forcing yourself from being who you thought you should be into allowing yourself to be who you really are – and so you have made real friends. You’ve gone from someone who felt it was too dangerous to share, to someone with close friends.

Looking at your life through a pessimistic lens is only a familiar habit. When we get into the habit of something like pessimism, or devaluing ourselves or others, it begins to feel true. But it isn’t true, it is merely familiar. And, just as you’ve found out how to be real so that you can make friends, you will also learn how to be you in job applications and interviews. You’ve already been to university – which, by the way, is something I didn’t achieve until I was past your age of 29. But, as I said, it isn’t a race.

You have courage; the courage to fail is the same courage we need to succeed and there will always be failures in our love lives and our work lives. But don’t think of them as failures, think of them as learning opportunities. The way we learn how to talk to ourselves makes a big difference.

Allow yourself some time to brainstorm what would excite you workwise. Recommended read: What Colour Is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles. I hope this will help you to steer your life where you want it to go and, by trial and error, you will find out where that will be. Remember, it’s not a race. It is time to get into the driving seat of your own life, recognise you are already beginning to do this and do it more.

  • The Book You Want Everyone You Love* To Read *(and maybe a few you don’t) by Philippa Perry (Cornerstone, £18.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Every week Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to ask.philippa@observer.co.uk. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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