“So, how’s life going?”
If this question gives you anxiety, you should probably read on.
We’ve all been there at some point in our lives – facing the fear of our life going differently than expected, hoped, planned and/or dreamed. Facing the fear of moving forward way too slowly or not moving at all. Facing the fear of “life passing us by”. Your little sister got married before you? Your best friend got promoted before you even settled for a career path? You often feel like you have absolutely nothing to show for? The way you feel is more common than you think. So let’s talk about what the problem is, where it derives from and how to handle it when it starts messing with your head.
We live in an accomplishment-driven society. Life often feels like a stairway, where each ‘step’ is a life goal we’re aiming to accomplish. What these goals are, depends on various cultural, historical and social influences.
In our western culture, the ‘stairway’ looks something like this:
You graduate from high school → You go to college/university → You find your dream job (and still have time to travel the world, duh) → You get married to the man/woman of your dreams → You buy/build a house → You start a family → You live happily ever after (whatever that means)
One of the (many) problems with the stairway metaphor is that it implies a very one-dimensional way of thinking. If life’s a stairway, what exactly is on top? Is it really the same thing we’re all aiming for? Is it really even the same stairway we’re all climbing? The answer to those questions is obvious, yet complex.
Us human beings love to have our lives structured and goals are one way to do this. Setting goals throughout life is our way of assuring we’re using our time on Earth wisely. So, goals are not the problem. The problem is, we tend to blame ourselves when things don’t go exactly as planned. This is especially true for millennials, as we’re often referred to as a generation of grinders with a tendency to perfectionism. (I recommend reading Anne Helen Petersen’s essay “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation”, she makes some really good points!)
Where the problem comes from
The power of social conventions
Our dreams and expectations of how our lives should go are influenced by the culture and society we grow up in, the moral principles and values that guide us and the experiences and observations we make early on in our lives. In some way, we are being taught what to strive for in life before we even know what it really means. Eventually there comes a point in life where we ask ourselves why we even wanted this in the first place.
More often than not, our ideal life is slightly different than what society expects it to be. Why? Because we (western societies) have the freedom to be whoever we want to be, do whatever we want to do and go wherever we want to go. Social conventions still exist, though now we actually have the choice whether to follow them or not. We have the opportunity to build our own stairway with our personal goals along the way. Figuring out what these are requires a certain amount of self-reflection and most of all, it requires time. Self-discovery is a lifelong process, so the least we should expect is having our life figured out by the age of 25. So what’s the rush?
A never-ending race
Let’s get back to the stairway metaphor. You’ve just reached a new step. Yey you! You’re all excited and proud of yourself… until you see someone else standing higher. How did they get there so fast? Are you that slow?
We grow up in constant comparison to others. That kid that learned to walk before us, that kid that got higher grades at school than we did, that colleague that works longer hours than we do. It’s almost “natural” to start comparing ourselves to others in other aspects of life, too. We are so busy keeping track of other people’s accomplishments that we forget to account for our own.
How to deal with it
Keep your eye on the ball
What’s essential here is learning to give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished so far. Don’t just consider “milestones” like graduating from university or landing a job, but also look at smaller, even daily accomplishments, as they too are a part of the bigger picture. You’re leading a healthy lifestyle? It means you’re investing in your health and well-being. You received positive feedback from your boss? It means your devotion and hard work are being recognized. Sometimes, small steps can get you a long way – or at least keep you going. So, instead of focusing on what you haven’t accomplished yet, try using it as a motivation to keep working and improving.
Walk your own (stair-)way
It’d be easier to just tell you to not compare yourself to others, but I know oh too well that it’s not as easy as it sounds. The truth is, it requires actively working on your mindset and your self-perception and it’s an ongoing process. Start by internalizing the fact that no life is perfect. Every single person you meet carries their own baggage and fights their own battles and just because their life broadly fits your definition of perfection, it doesn’t mean it fits theirs and chances are, they themselves are struggling with it. Once you realize this, comparing yourself to others becomes less “attractive”.
That being said though, comparing yourself to others isn’t a bad thing, as long as you don’t let it bring you down. Whenever you feel like someone’s “ahead” of you, use it as a motivation to keep going and eventually get there yourself. Let the success of other people inspire you to do better. Your younger sister getting married is not a wake up call for you to find somebody – take it as a sign that true love does exist and you’ll eventually find it. Instead of blaming yourself for not having settled on a career yet while your best friend is already being promoted, try to see it as a chance to learn from someone with more experience than you. Keep an eye on your own accomplishments and always remember – you’re not going slow. You’re just walking at your own pace.
Have you ever been in a similar situation? How do you deal with this type of feelings? I’m thrilled to read your opinion on the topic!