Overwhelmed by all the milestones and goals you “should” be reaching? If your checklist is making you miserable, it’s time to find out what will really have you jumping for joy.

There probably isn’t a woman alive who hasn’t at some point had a sneaky thought along the lines of, “I really should be doing X by the time I’m [insert appropriate age].” Whether “X” equals landing your dream job, buying your first apartment, meeting Mr Right or becoming a mum, many of us live under a weight of expectations and milestones that we think – rightly or wrongly – will make us happy. Often, our inner bully can become a toxic little voice in our head telling us we “should” be doing this or that by now, and well, why aren’t we?

“Falling prey to ‘shoulds’ is a negative way to run your life – you’re always going to fall short,” explains psychologist Jacqui Manning. “Also, when you’re young, you’re still finding your feet and a lack of life experience can mean you create a vision for your future and goals that aren’t overly realistic.” Manning says that many goals women set are based around their biological clock, and the feeling they “should” be married with kids by a certain age.

But these days, women’s priorities are shifting. “We’re more liberated to speak our minds if we don’t feel like fitting into traditional norms and we choose not to have these things, so perhaps we’re all struggling a bit as our culture changes,” she suggests.

No pressure, right?
Err, wrong. There can be serious knock-on effects from slapping all these expectations on our shoulders – stress being a biggie. Manning believes that unrealistic expectations can leave you in a constant cycle of anxiety. “You can end up finding that you’re never happy in the moment,” she says. “People often get into the mindset ‘When I have X, I’ll do Y… and then I’ll be happy’. But if you find yourself thinking like this, remember your emotional state or who you are isn’t dependent on what you have, but is something that you have control over and can develop positively, no matter where you’re at in life.”

The great man hunt
For many women, that elusive “X” is finding their real-life Ryan Gosling. “I felt this deep desire to settle down by 27,” says radio producer Daniela Pola, who’s now 31. “My ovaries almost hurt from how badly I wanted children, and I became a dating machine in the pursuit of that.” Four years on, Daniela says she feels lucky that she never found Mr Right in her late twenties. “If I’d met someone, I would’ve jumped on the baby train right away and it might not have been the right decision. These days, my life is very different. I’m independent and have far more confidence in who I am. I still hope to meet my partner in crime at some point, but my life is full. You have to be kind to yourself – sometimes trying to control things too much takes away the magic of the journey.”

It’s all about you
Like Daniela, Jana Hocking, 30, an executive producer in radio, had set herself a “married by 28” milestone. But as it crept closer, her mindset changed. “As I approached my ‘deadline’ I realised I wasn’t prepared to do that,” Jana recalls. “In my job, the hours can be pretty crazy, which didn’t leave much time for dating. I believe that if I had settled down, I wouldn’t be the executive producer of a popular breakfast radio show that I am now.” Jana says she’s happy with how things turned out, and that other young women need to do what’s right for them. “I’m not holding onto that goal because it can become a thorn in my side. I still want marriage (and maybe kids), but it’s no longer my number one milestone. We should focus on ourselves, and go at a pace we’re comfortable with.”

Finding a new path
Still, it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to those around us. “I felt like I should have the office job, house and family nailed down by the age of 30,” says 27-year-old travel writer Phoebe Lee. “I think the pressure to be doing these things came from watching other friends take that route. I hadn’t seen anyone become happy or succeed in life by taking another path.” However, all that changed when Phoebe and her husband, Matt, were about to buy their first home – and it fell through. “At first we were upset because we had fixated on that goal for so long. Then we felt relieved because we realised just how much our lives would have changed having a mortgage. Losing the apartment, while scary, was actually liberating. We decided to see the world instead. Since then, our lives have changed considerably. I really feel like we have an open road in front of us and the more we live how we want, the braver and more fulfilled we get.”

Bye bye, bully
Because we’re the ones lumping ourselves with this massive weight of expectation, getting rid of it starts with, well, ourselves. According to Manning, the first step is to eradicate “I should…” from your vocabulary. “Acknowledge all your wins and successes. Where there are gaps, say to yourself, ‘What are three things I can do today, this week or even this year to work towards that goal positively?’ This is more productive than falling prey to a toxic ‘should’.” Practise being in the moment. “Often we’re so busy we forget to take time out to reflect on what we really want,” Manning explains. “Take a breath, spend some time alone and clarify what you want out of life. Then find ways to make it happen.” Because you know what? Whatever’s on the horizon for you  – whether it’s a husband, babies, or even just that yummy burrito you’re planning to have for dinner tonight – everything’s going to turn out just fine. 

Image: sergeblack / 123RF.com
Text: Rachel Smith 
Additional reporting: Kit Chua