Wallflower Syndrome, or: Youth, Know Thyself

This past weekend I was reflecting on my job search strategies and current prospects. After doing some mental gymnastics (mirrored in the furrows of my brow), I turned to my significant other and asked if he thought I was lacking in tangible, real-world skills and this was the reason behind my lack of motivation to apply to jobs.

“How many job applications have you actually sent out?”

“Two, maybe three major ones. I’m working on a few leads.” I responded, evasively. He shook his head.

“You can’t wait for employers to come to you. You have to go to them.” I wriggled uncomfortably in my seat and rolled my eyes, expressing my dismay. My brain was running through a whole pile of dismaying facts: newspaper articles, statistics, and anecdotal stories that I’d voraciously consumed on a daily basis, all proclaiming that the world is tough for young entrants into the job market.

“But – just sending in resumes feels like such a waste of time, like I’m throwing my name into a hat, to be drawn out at random. I’m not very good at dealing with that kind of uncertainty. I need something concrete to work with.”

My partner nodded his head at this, as if I’d presented a concept well-known to him. “Yes, well you were always a good student, weren’t you? Because someone was always giving you another assignment that you could work with – one small goal amongst many, building towards the end result of graduating.”

I froze. Truer words were never spoken – and in fact, their implications extend beyond just my job search strategies. They reach into the very edges of my psyche, altering every single one of my behaviors. The term that immediately came into my head to describe this phenomenon? “Wallflower Syndrome”.

A literal flower. Not to be confused with the figurative "wallflower".
A literal flower. Not to be confused with the figurative “wallflower”.

Although Urban Dictionary describes a wallflower as someone who is “a type of loner. seemingly shy folks who no one really knows [sic]” (Urban Dictionary, 2004), I here describe it as:

An individual who waits, passively and out of sight from most people, for the appropriate moment to take action.

A person who sits on the sidelines waiting for love, employment, success, fame (or even just another set of goals to achieve), will often become frustrated and anxious that life is not unfolding in an expected series of events. Sometimes, that all-important ‘appropriate moment’ for action never reveals itself.

Last night I watched a HuffPost Live debate around “Under 30” lists. The participants included Carolyn Gregoire (see her article on the problems with Under 30 lists here), Ali Powell (her related article is here), and Rebecca Fraser-Thill (she debates Under 30 lists on her blog here). Three main problems with Under 30 lists stood out to me:

  1. Feeling like you’re ‘behind’ because you haven’t achieved certain goals (as determined by external sources like the media, parents, friends, etc.) by a specific deadline can generate unnecessary stress;
  2. This stress can pressure you to make permanent life decisions and prevent you from enjoying the necessary self-exploration that most often occurs in your early 20s; and,
  3. Life doesn’t end after you’re 30. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that our experiences become richer as we age, and we gradually become happier people.

A person with Wallflower Syndrome may fear taking risks – talking to that love interest, booking that trip, or sending in that job application. But if they are susceptible to external pressures (as we all are at certain points in our lives) they may find themselves jumping into the next available life stage just because it feels like the ‘right goal’ or the obvious ‘next step’ at the time. Or, they may generate negative feelings around past decisions – a trap that can decrease feelings of gratitude and related sensations of happiness (I’ll touch on this subject again in a future blog posting).

My Wallflower Syndrome is both an integral part of my personality and my upbringing. As a child, I was taught how to behave properly and with good manners – speak only when spoken to, wait your turn, say “please” and “thank you”. In high school I was a socially restrained and risk-averse individual, a state which followed me into my undergraduate life. I found that assignments and projects and work just naturally came to me, and I was pleased to respond and do the work of others to my best ability.

Now, at 24 years old, I find that not only do I have to go out into the world to find work (accepting en route any potential risks and failures), but I also have a strong desire to create work that is uniquely my own. This, I believe, is part of that early-20s development so often spoken of, written about, and puzzled over. It is comprised of the moments in which you start to take possession over your life, snatching it away from external influences and asking the pivotal question: “Is this really the right thing for me?”

So – youth and wallflowers of all ages: right now, at this very moment in time, are you doing what’s really meaningful to you? This is possibly the hardest question you will ever ask yourself in life; in 1750 Benjamin Franklin, wrote: “There are three Things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self” (Wikipedia article).

I write this with hope and the sincere wish that people of all ages will have the chance to know themselves better and break out of the Wallflower Syndrome!

Do you have questions or criticisms about this article? Please share by commenting below or Tweeting me @legault_maria!

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