11 Things I Thought I Had To Do At 24 That I Realized Weren't Mandatory By 28

A lot can happen in four years — especially when you're in your 20s. By no means have I figured this whole "life" thing out. If anything, getting older just seems to give me more evidence with which to confirm just how little I know in the first place. But there are some things that have changed in the last four years which I've noticed lots of my friends moving from their mid-to-late 20s are also realizing.

Basically, there's one common theme, and I'm pretty excited about it: We all appear to be giving less and less of a f*ck what other people think, and to be knowing what we want and who we are more clearly. That's the direction I hope my life's trajectory follows, at any rate. And there are plenty of ways both large and small that I've seen myself grow toward that reality. I'm less likely than ever before to ignore my gut intuitions, to make myself uncomfortable or insincere for the male gaze, or, most of all, to tell myself that I suck.

Though the list could really go on and on, here are 11 things I've realized I simply don't have to do over the last four years.

1. Fill Silences On First Dates

I was the queen of this. I mean, I interview people for a living. So on first dates, you could find me filling any pause with an interesting question to a sometimes less-than-interesting date. While there's nothing wrong with asking questions, I've learned over the last few years that it is a red flag if you're the only one who can drive conversation. You aren't obligated to fill any silence, and how well the conversation flows naturally — and how curious the other person is about you — are actually really important things to pay attention to on a first date.

It wasn't until I went out with my current boyfriend that I fully realized how I'd always done this. After he asked me a series of questions in succession on our first date and I noticed how much I was revealing about myself, I blurted out, "Wow, you're really good at this. Usually I'm the one asking the questions." It became a joke between us later — one of the first signs that this was going to be a grown-ass man I was dealing with.

2. "Maintain" My Pubic Hair

I've written before about my realization that I could rock a full bush and still be considered sexy, and it's definitely been a small but significant change. When I was 24, I still thought that I at least needed to groom my bikini line if I was sleeping with someone. Nope. There are lots of reasons I usually choose to hang onto my pubic hair these days — from my health to my feminism to my sex life — and realizing that I don't have to do anything with my nether regions I don't want to do is empowering.

3. Convince My Friends To Leave Bad Relationships

When I was 24, a close friend was in a really bad relationship. I was concerned, so it seemed to make sense at the time to exhaust myself worrying about her and trying to convince her to leave. For years, she kept going back to him, no matter what he did. It wasn't until she finally left him for good that I realized that while you can and should support a friend in a bad situation, you can't "convince" anyone to do anything they aren't ready to do.

Lesson learned. When another friend found herself in a similar situation this year, I was able to have more emotional energy and resources to give to her because I wasn't busy exhausting myself and getting frustrated by the fact that I couldn't convince her to just leave. Instead, I was honest about my opinion, and just told her I was there no matter what.

4. Pluck Out And Freak Out Over Grey Hairs

I was 24 when I got my first grey hair, and I freaked the f*ck out. I was unhappy with my job at the time, and was sure this was evidence that it was prematurely aging me. I felt the angel of death hover over me, plucked the hair right out, and scheduled an appointment with a colorist that day.

Now that I'm 28, a few more errant grey hairs have started to pop up on the regular. They don't come in cute streaks, and are kind of like that one hair that I will always tweeze from my chin. Sometimes, when I see a grey hair sprouting now, I tweeze it out, and am still reminded of the fact that I am indeed aging. Other times, I'll just leave it. Sometimes, it'll be in a spot I even kind of like. It depends on my mood, really. The difference is that I don't feel the need to immediately eradicate them now.

5. Consider Myself An "Animal Person" In Order To Stop Eating Them

I held off on going vegetarian or vegan for years in large part because I didn't think animals were "my cause." I didn't have pets, and while I think animals are cute, I didn't consider myself a hardcore animal lover like other vegetarians I knew. It wasn't until I stopped eating animals and their byproducts last year that I realized that my reasons for feeling uncomfortable with being a meat-eater weren't just about the animals. I'm a vegan now in large part because of my feminism and my core belief in every living being's right to autonomy over their own bodies. And that is a totally valid reason. You — not the stereotype — get to define your own morality.

6. Fix Men

OK, this is a huge one, and has so many components within it that it is actually another article entirely. Between ages 22 and 27 especially, I dated a string of guys who, though very sweet, did not have their sh*t together in the way I needed for a relationship. Of course, I hadn't dated enough to really know that yet, and I more than played my part in the pattern by picking guys with specific wounds to lick in an attempt to a) distract myself from having to figure out what I wanted from life and b) prove to myself that I could be the girlfriend of anyone's dreams.

Never again. I've now seen what it's like to be in a relationship where you're not trying to fix or change someone, and I'm not going back. It's really actually as simple as that. It's just a different phase of my life, and I don't think I could ever make as many excuses or spend as much energy trying to change people as I once did. It wasn't fair to any of us.

7. Allow My Parents To Guilt Trip Me

I was often overwhelmed with guilt in my early 20s, especially from my parents. If one of them called me and I didn't call back for X-amount of time I deemed non-guilt-worthy, I could feel my stomach churn. I didn't know how to assert my boundaries, and though I desperately needed to truly separate from them as an adult, I struggled not to feel responsible for their happiness and sense of pride.

The therapist I began seeing at 24 completely helped me untangle all that. Though I still struggle with this immensely, I've probably never been better at cutting off guilt trips or any other manipulative behavior than I am now. I have the right to an independent adulthood, and to define boundaries with my family that work for me.

8. Confine My Body In Order To Look Sexy

It kind of boggles my mind how pretty much all of my "cute" going-out clothes at 24 actually made me feel uncomfortable. I was a fan of high-waisted jeans and skirts, but they were not a fan of me. They made me feel sexy when I stood up, but anytime I sat down, my stomach pressed against the waistband in a way that made me feel uncomfortable and bad about my body. Yet I continued to wear them, along with other dresses, shoes, belts, and even bras that were less than comfortable.

Not only was this not necessary, but it was also probably taking away from my sexiness, because I was uncomfortable. These days, any pair of pants I wear are stretchy and low-rise. If I'm bloated or gain a few pounds, my pants don't let me know; I can even do yoga in them. My dresses are still sexy, but they are almost all stretchy cotton without waistbands, and I don't wear any shoes that I can't sprint to the train in. Honestly, I'm not sure I've ever felt sexier or more confident on first dates. More importantly, I've realized that looking good doesn't have to mean restricting my body in any way.

9. Make Noise During Sex

While I still struggle to unlearn the habits of performing during sex, I can safely say that I've at least now been able to allow myself to be quiet if I feel like it. I don't have to supply a constant soundtrack of encouragement and moaning, and if I want to just focus on my breath or enjoy the relative silence, I can. I am not a porn star, and though I never thought I had to be one consciously, unlearning the messages I absorbed from pop culture about how women have sex has taken serious work and a deliberate effort to have sex more authentically. One way I have begun to learn to do that is to sometimes allow myself to just be quiet.

10. Get Married And Have Kids One Day

I never consciously thought I "had" to do this one. It was just a part of the imagined story of my life, as it is for many women. While I don't rule either of those options out, the closer I get to either choice being a real possibility rather than an abstract concept, the less sure I am about them. I used to say that I "definitely wanted to have my own kids," whereas now I think that if I do end up wanting children, I would probably try to adopt. I might get married one day; I might not. And while I never did imagine a white wedding, I did imagine some sort of amazing Rachel Getting Married- style fantasy party, whereas now I'm fairly certain I would elope. The happier I am in my relationship, the less I actually assume about the future.

11. Always Be Perfect On Multiple Levels At Once

Thanks again to therapy, I realized that I have always put a very particular kind of pressure on myself to have and be it all. I needed to make my family proud, be a famous writer, have passionate, earth-shattering sex all the time but also a stable, long-lasting, monogamous relationship, be better-looking by getting a nose job or having flat abs, see the entire world but not be broke, be a great friend but also be comfortable being alone ... the list went on and on, and therefore so did my constant sense of failure. I was obsessed with knowing that I was "living my life right" and constantly afraid that I was running out of time, even though I had in many ways just begun.

While I'm by no means beyond this way of thinking now, I've also never been more forgiving of myself, or less likely to believe that I have to be everything at once to everyone. As I gather more evidence about this thing called life, I trust in its trajectory more and more. I've made good decisions, and I've continued to progress. There's no reason to think I won't keep leading myself in the right direction for me — and that includes certain failures and mistakes. It's all part of it, and being in constant competition with myself is frankly too exhausting to continue anyway. It's getting clearer and clearer how short life is, and I don't want to waste it being so hard on myself anymore.

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Images: Rachel Krantz; Giphy