My first feature for Grazia UK.
The article appeared in print, in the 1 November issue.
I had always thought of myself as a decisive person. Calm, collected, works well under pressure. But increasingly I feel like I’m playing catch-up, driven by a niggling fear that something better is always around the corner. With just three weeks until my postgraduate course begins, I find myself wracked with doubt. Recently a job listing flashed across my phone screen in the middle of a date. A minute earlier I had felt content, my stomach full from good food and my limbs loosened by good wine. However, after reading the notification, I felt my throat tighten. Having signed up for Twitter notifications from a careers site, I can’t bring myself to turn them off. As I struggle to breathe, I realise my anxiety over choosing the perfect option has me – quite literally – in a chokehold.
Experiencing some form of anxiety is far from uncommon. A recent study by the University of Cambridge found that there are an estimated 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK – and women are twice as likely to experience anxiety than men. Millennials are also particularly prone to anxiety; the same study revealed that men and women under the age of 35 are more likely to be affected than older people. Psychologist Dr Carolyn Mair told Grazia that “the pressure for young women to have it all: beauty, sporting prowess, a great job”, has led to these higher rates of anxiety. Striving for perfection makes us cautious – each choice is carefully deliberated. From Tinder matches to multiple exercise and diet plans, everyday we are overwhelmed with options. And the pressure to choose “perfectly” is slowly manifesting itself into anxiety – or rather, Option Anxiety.
The pursuit of perfection and the fear of failure certainly dictate my decision-making. I become sidetracked and confused, doubting my own judgement when faced with so many options. I’ll be consumed by the internal battle raging in my head, my thoughts suddenly back-flipping with more agility than Simone Biles. What if there’s a better path than the one I’ve chosen? Reminded of Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’, I’ll find myself at a crossroad – but instead of choosing the eponymous road and taking it, I turn in endless circles.
This anxiety is present whilst picking an Internet provider, a restaurant on Deliveroo, or a film on Netflix. Pacing the aisles of the local supermarket, I’ll agonise over selecting a jar of peanut butter. With around fifteen options lining the shelves – smooth, crunchy, salted, organic – I should feel spoilt for choice. Instead, it feels like a choice overload.
At the outset, women in their twenties and thirties have never had it so good. In both our professional and personal lives, we have huge numbers of possibilities. Gone are the days of slowly ascending a single career ladder. Ours is the generation of “career portfolios”; the ladder has been replaced with a playground assault course, with no prescribed route or even starting point. Gone too are assumptions that a twenty-something woman should be settling down. The “smug couple” has been replaced with the “smug single”, whose travel adventures fill our Instagram feeds and hilarious dating anecdotes fill the office with peals of laughter. Why settle down when the cream of the dating crop is just a swipe away on Tinder?
Young women no longer have prescribed trajectories for life –and that’s liberating. However, in our pursuit of perfection and “having it all”, the huge number of options available to us can feel like a minefield. Everyday we are bombarded with choices. Should you be buying almond milk instead of soy? Is there another perfume out there that better encapsulates “you”? Should you swap your ballet classes for boxing to attain that Victoria’s Secret body? Unsurprisingly, American research on “the paradox of choice” has shown that too many options can in fact be debilitating. In supermarkets with more product choice, customers leave feeling less satisfied, left with a nagging sense that they could have chosen better.
Speaking to other women in their twenties and thirties, it’s clear that Option Anxiety is not uncommon. “There are so many choices to make, that I find myself making absolutely no decision at all,” says Emily, 22. “I would rather be spoilt for choice than forced onto a particular path, but it’s like I’m at a restaurant with a menu; the waiter is approaching but I’m still undecided.” During a recent catch-up, a friend of mine referred to her boyfriend as a “stopover”. I laughed at her bluntness, but the comment also seemed disconcerting. Always looking around the corner for the next dating option, my friend is forgetting to live in the present.
Perhaps Option Anxiety can be compared to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), or else the old adage, “the grass is always greener…” Social media has made it easier than ever to compare oneself – and one’s choices – to others’. Katie, 25, often experiences “FOMO” over other women’s life choices. “I look at their lives and think: ‘They’re doing that, I haven’t done that, they’re a step ahead of me.’” Ironically, the Internet is now offering solutions to Option Anxiety, in the form of apps, like ‘Best Decision’, which use analytics to help you evaluate choices.
Sarah, 33, who works in the beauty industry, feels that Option Anxiety gets worse as you enter your thirties. “There’s the expectation of a certain salary and lifestyle. I went part-time to pursue freelance ventures, and so many friends questioned my choice. I’ve had times where I’ve thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?’ It takes real confidence to trust that you never fail, you just find another track.”
This confidence to choose and risk temporary failure is the solution to Option Anxiety. Women in their twenties and thirties strain so much for perfection –the well-paid job, the travel adventures, the glamorous romances – that we’ve forgotten how to listen to our guts. I might always experience residual anxiety over life’s decisions. But how does the old saying go – one door closes, another opens?