7 Painful Lessons I Learned in My Early 20s

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By Christina Berchini – “Isn’t there some cream you can get for that, to boost you up a little bit?”

We were walking along Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York, my boyfriend Rob and I. I did not have a car, and we just finished another semester at college. Having moved back home to our respective boroughs (I lived in Brooklyn, he in Staten Island), it was always a treat when I got to see him (usually about once a week).

Until he ruined it, that particular day, by asking me to consider altering the size of a particular part of my body.

Rob thought nothing of making such a comment and, because he was ultimately lacking in the amount of brain cells required to function in life (if that were not already obvious), he wondered why I had “suddenly” become annoyed and standoffish.

As though the suggestion that I were not appealing enough to my significant other should be well-taken, seriously considered, and not at all grounds for the metaphorical brick wall that went up (and stayed up) around me as a result of his judgment. My mood, instead, was quite “sudden,” appearing out of the clear blue to “ruin” our date, with no obvious catalyst.

I would not relive the emotional turmoil of my early 20s for a million bucks. Seriously.

I was 20 at the time, and had not yet acquired the language, mentality, or confidence required to keep from deeply internalizing Rob’s words, and to walk away when I should have (as in, right then and there).

I broke up with him probably about a year later (yes, it took that long). But Rob’s words lingered, and I spent the next five or so years wondering if I were “good enough.” I endured that phase of my life contemplating cosmetic surgery; and although his comments targeted an isolated part of my body, I would not leave the house (or dorm) without spending a significant amount of time on my appearance; even then, I’d sneak away and take frequent bathroom breaks in an effort to maintain whatever color palette I applied to my face on a given day.

The brows were always tweezed to perfection; the hair gelled with precision.

My makeup bag was a significant part of my person; if I forgot it at home, I’d turn around to retrieve it –usually no matter where I happened to be.

I realize, years later, that I made the rest of my appearance work overtime to over-compensate for what was, in Rob’s view, a profound flaw comprising a single part of my anatomy.
You will confront a particular brand of “men” who might attempt to make you feel as though you should look and be something else. That is their problem…

I would not relive the emotional turmoil of my early 20s for a million bucks. Seriously. And this memory of Rob inspired my thinking about the things, both large and small, related to relationships or not, that I wish I would have known when I was in my early 20s. My memory of Rob inspires what I wish I would have known in relation to my development as a person, and how I wish I would have done a little more to invest in my future-self.

And because I begin with a memory about Rob, I’ll begin the following short list with a lesson about relationships:

  1. Nice guys will probably finish last when you are in your early 20s, and if this is true for you, proceed with caution: Think twice about creating painful memories by investing in someone unworthy of your time. Memories are like wrinkles. You can minimize them with a shot of botox or (really good) foundation (I recommend Pür); but like wrinkles, you will contend with painful memories for life. Or until you elect for a lobotomy, in which case neither wrinkles nor memories will matter much.

(Following this, I do not remember a single Friday or Saturday night that I spent alone, in my early 20s. But I have a bankroll of unfortunate memories of hanging out with the wrong guys, and wrong people in general, to avoid being alone.)

  1. If a guy spends $300 on a stereo system for his SUV and then, that very same evening, asks you to “go half” on your Valentine’s Day dinner, interpret this as the warning sign that it is. (I.e., do not wait a year to break up with that one. Trust me. Wait out the evening if you must, cut your losses, and bid adieux.)
  2. If your Mom blows up at you about the guy you are dating, there is likely an EXCELLENT reason for this (thank you, Mom). If you continue seeing him, you are not spiting/hurting anyone but yourself.
  3. No one will ever care more about your health, personal finances, and emotional stability than you will. If you allow him to take you for a ride, he most assuredly will (I learned this particular lesson straight through to my 30s).
  4. When you hit 30, you will probably miss the eyebrows you worked so furiously to eliminate in those daily pursuits of perfection. Leave your eyebrows alone. They eventually dostop growing back, if you mess with them often enough.

(Following this, use sunscreen or, perhaps more effective, keep your face out of the sun. Your skin will thank you in your 30s.)

  1. If you do not care about your money (or if you pretend that you do not care), men will take notice. The good ones will call you on it and point out that you should think about money differently; the great ones will teach you how to think about money more advantageously; the bad ones will actively seek ways to capitalize on your inattentiveness.

(Following this, learn how to, quite literally, capitalize on your twenties. I am 12-years late to the investing and retirement game, and I am here to tell you: You will regret that move. Even if it is only 20 bucks a month, save it. Better yet, invest it. There are good, accessible books on saving and investing. Read them.)

And because I began this post with a memory about Rob, I’ll end with this tidy piece:

  1. You are NOT going to regret deciding against plastic surgery. The look you might want at 20 is not the look that you are going to want at 30. You will confront a particular brand of “men” who might attempt to make you feel as though you should look and be something else. That is their problem; leave them to their (obvious) addiction to a certain film genre and distorted views of women, and move on with your life. You will come out on top in the end; they will come out alone.

About the contributor

Christina BerchiniChristina is a university professor, author, and researcher. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education with an emphasis in English Education from Michigan State University, and is published in several practitioner and scholarly journals.

In addition to scholarship, Christina is the creator of Hey College Kid where she gives advice and tough love to college students. Her creative work has been featured on the Huffington PostSuccess, Role Reboot, and promoted on Blogher. Her interests include an unhealthy obsession with the Huffington Post and TED Talks.