A “Real Grownup” and the Isolation –> Belonging Shift

Last week, we talked about the Order of Operations problem when dealing with Thirtysomething Panic (or changes at any stage of life). In preparing to share my insights from ten years (!) of coaching with you over the course of this 10th anniversary year, I’ve faced my own OOO problem: since each individual is different, the Order of Operations of how my clients and readers will create change in their lives is different for everyone. And yet, because I’m writing to you as a group instead of coaching you as an individual, I have to make some decisions about how to order these insights and action steps.

So over the next few posts, we’re going to begin with some concepts that can be really useful to start with, no matter who you are and what you’re working on. We’ll explore ways to lay the foundation for a successful change odyssey. In particular, we’ll look at and practice some key commitments and skills that will set you up for a powerful journey towards creating the career, relationships, and life you want: 

3 Key Commitments/Decisions: 
Commit to telling the truth
Commit to listening to yourself
Commit to going on the journey to create what you want

3 Key Skills/Shifts: 
Normalize your experience (the Isolation —> Belonging shift)
Narrate with neutrality (the Negative —> Neutral shift)
Enhance insight and intuition (the Squash —> Encourage shift)

One thing I’ve learned from a decade of coaching is that we humans tend to be pretty hard on ourselves. As a coach, I have the unusual privilege of being “let inside” the minds of my clients in a filter-off way, so I have a firsthand look at this broad tendency. No matter how confident we may seem to others in our lives, and even as we may have a genuine strong base of confidence in some areas, most of us can be pretty harsh judges of ourselves. We have an image inside of who, how, what, and where we “should” be, do, have, and feel—and we don’t measure up.

The great news is we can learn and practice how to be kinder and more accurate assessors of ourselves, and tell the story of what we’re experiencing in ways that equip us to expand, rather than contract, our lives.

Because we wither in isolation and thrive in connection and belonging, an essential part of my job is to help you understand that you are not alone in what you are dealing with, and that you are a 100% valid and valuable human who is on a 100% valid and valuable human journey. I promise. I have walked—and continue to walk—that path myself, and I have worked with so many people who are going through what you’re going through. 

Thirtysomething Panic, or worried dissatisfaction about where your life is at ANY age, can make you feel very experience-isolated, and very wrong—like your life and your very SELF are wrong. This sense of wrongness and isolation can take a huge toll. Today we’re going to zoom in on and practice just one of the first key skills/shifts that can help pull you out of the Thirtysomething Panic abyss: 

Normalize your experience (the Isolation —> Belonging shift)

This is a long one, so grab a cup of coffee and get comfy. You may also want to grab a piece of paper and a pen, pencil, or whatever doodling supplies you want to, for this week’s prompt (see it at the bottom!).

 What Was Your Picture?

When we are young, we develop a picture of what a “Real Grownup” is. (At the top of this post, you can see an image of a “Real Grownup” that a group in one of my workshops created from the pictures in their own heads.)

Beyond our general image of a Real Grownup, most of us develop a picture in our minds—which may be very vague or highly specific—of what we will do, be, have, and feel when we have arrived at true adulthood. This picture comes from our own hopes and dreams, the models we have in our lives, and the implicit and explicit messages we get from our parents, teachers, peers, and the media. 

All along, throughout your childhood and teen years (and, for many people, into early adulthood), this Real Grownup is a Someone Else. Then, suddenly…it’s supposed to be YOU. You start to see the gaps between where you thought you’d be when you were a Real Grownup and where you actually are now. 

Having carried this picture of what we “should” be into our thirties and beyond, many of us feel like imposters as we compare ourselves to that image and don’t see ourselves measuring up!

When you take stock of your life and the contrast between what you thought was supposed to happen and what has actually happened hits you, it can feel like a full-body punch. This contrast can be external (what your career, home, relationship situation, and so on are, as compared to what you thought they would or should look like) and internal (how you thought you’d FEEL as compared to how you actually feel). 

Many thirtysomethings—and beyond—feel shame for having somehow “gotten it wrong.” “Maybe there’s something wrong with me” feels like the most isolating, I’m-alone worry, but it is actually a very, very common thought. Most people I know have grappled with some version of that thought. You may relate to one, two, or even all three of the following.

 1. “I should have figured out all the basic components of adult life by now. How did I get so behind? What’s the secret? What am I doing wrong?!?”

If you don’t have some—or any!—of the markers of grownup-ness that you long for, such as a partner, kids, an established and satisfying career, a sense of financial security, and so forth, it’s easy to fall into thinking that if you had those things, you’d be perfectly happy—and that people who do have those things did everything “right” and have it made. 

This feeling can be overwhelming and really detrimental to our sense of self, even if we’re the only ones saying it. It can get even more overwhelming if others in our lives reinforce it. Out of worry and wanting what’s best for you (best as they define it, of course), your family, friends, and even over-entitled strangers ask questions and make observations that intentionally or unintentionally activate your own panic. 

And then there’s social media. You scroll down your feed and see the posts of people you went to elementary school with, holding their second and third babies, getting married, celebrating promotions at companies that sound really glamorous and important, taking fancy vacations…and so on. We all started in the same place, you think. We took our spelling tests next to each other and were in the same seventh grade health class and now she’s taking care of three children and I’m proud of myself if I have cereal in the house. What if I had taken that path? Should I have taken that path? 

If this sounds like you, it is time to practice this foundational skill/shift: 
Normalize your experience and make the Isolation —> Belonging Shift. Know this, and practice saying it to yourself, over and over: It is normal to feel what I’m feeling. I am currently experiencing an aspect of the human journey that many, many other people experience. I belong. I am part of humanity. I am not alone in this. And this is not forever.

 2. “I did everything right, and it still feels all wrong.”

There are plenty of people with all of those things mentioned above who still experience Thirtysomething Panic, and who still don’t feel like the “Real Grownup” they looked up to as children. They may have achieved the vision they had and checked all of the boxes they were “supposed to,” only to find that they are not happy, or that they can’t shake the sense that they are not on the right path. This is not to say that a great relationship, kids, a purposeful career, and financial security don’t contribute to happiness—they most certainly can and do. But the idea that you’d be happy if only you had x or y is a fallacy—a fallacy that can make you feel really, really crappy about yourself. 

I don’t have to explain this to those of you who feel that you did everything “right,” and arrived where you planned—and are still not happy. Some people achieve their vision of the “Real Grownup,” checking all the boxes they thought they were supposed to check—only to find they are unhappy. I’ve had numerous clients who come to me with lives many people might aspire to, who feel confusion, guilt, and even shame about how dissatisfied they feel with themselves and their lives. 

If you’re enjoying a degree of security and apparent success, you may feel you’re caught in the proverbial “golden handcuffs”—how can you mess up the good thing going you have when there are no guarantees you’ll find something better? And besides, you think, you SHOULD feel happy. You’re luckier than so many people you know. Why would you jeopardize that? And how can you be so ungrateful?

So you push aside or numb the insistent voice inside telling you this isn’t right. But it always comes back. “I did all the right things and I’m on the path I knew I’d follow and I should be happy—and I’m not.” You had a pretty specific picture of what your path would look like, you followed it, and here you are, with a daily grind you can’t imagine doing for the next 30+ years, and maybe the debt you incurred to get there tossed in for good measure.

If this sounds like you, it is time to practice this foundational skill: 
Normalize your experience and make the Isolation —> Belonging Shift. Know this, and practice saying it to yourself, over and over: It is normal to feel what I’m feeling. I am currently experiencing an aspect of the human journey that many, many other people experience. I belong. I am part of humanity. I am not alone in this. And this is not forever. 

3. “I never really planned for or thought about my future. I just kept going along and here I am.”

But what about those of you who never had such a specific vision? You may feel like you missed the whole memo on creating a longterm plan for your life, and had only the haziest of pictures of what adult life would look like. 

As a kid, I never looked too far beyond the chunk of time I was in. I always sort of vaguely knew that I would go to high school, then to college, then…get a job? I guess? On the plus side, I lived my life in the present. On the down side, I arrived at college without the slightest idea of what I wanted to study or what career path I hoped to walk. 

There are some advantages to such wide-openness, but at the time, I felt so clueless compared to my laser-visioned peers. I remember many nights overhearing Rachel, my dorm neighbor, on the phone with her father. She was pre-med and knew from the day she arrived at Brandeis that she was going to be a doctor. Never mind that she spent at least 5 hours a week crying on the phone to her dad, trying to explain to him that she didn’t really WANT to be a doctor, that she was overwhelmed with hard coursework that didn’t prepare her for her own dream, but for his. I still looked at her clear path with admiration. 

If you never had a clear picture, you may find yourself looking around at other people and wonder how you wandered your way here, at age ___, with no itinerary at all. You may wish you’d thought to make a map.

If this sounds like you, it is time for you to practice this foundational skill: 
Normalize your experience and make the Isolation —> Belonging Shift. Know this, and practice saying it to yourself, over and over: It is normal to feel what I’m feeling. I am currently experiencing an aspect of the human journey that many, many other people experience. I belong. I am part of humanity. I am not alone in this. And this is not forever.

It Never Ends: a Note for Those Who Had Once “Arrived,” and All the Othersomethings

Thirtysomething Panic may not be something that happens once, and then you get over it. For many people, Thirtysomething Panic comes in waves, with the first wave coming around 28, and the waves continuing or even crescendoing into your 40s. (Having recently joined the ranks of fortysomethings myself, I still experience waves of many of the components of Thirtysomething Panic.)

What’s more, the components of Thirtysomething Panic exist in other periods of life—they just take on a different shape, flavor, and tone. You may read this article as a fortysomething, fiftysomething, sixtysomething, seventysomething, or anysomething, and find many of the ideas resonant and relevant to your life. 

This makes sense, because we are humans first. The basic components of our lives remain consistent, even as they take on different forms and stakes in different developmental periods and at different ages. Beyond that, we contain all the earlier iterations of ourselves inside. Even if you have left your thirties behind, you still contain your thirtysomething self, and you may be still be carrying with you any ideas, fears, and questions that opened up in that time and were not resolved.

It’s hard to be a human. It’s also sometimes easy, and wonderful, and fun. But some things about being a person are hard. Even if you do everything “right.” Even if you get that job, or meet that partner, or win that lottery. There is no immunity from personhood. 

As we grow and change, and as those around us grow and change, we may need to renegotiate what success looks like for us, or what a satisfying life requires. We may be very satisfyingly successful in one stage of life, and find that our needs and wants change. This does not render the successes we experienced earlier in life moot. Those successes count. 

When something that once felt like a final arrival ends—a marriage, a dream job, a home, the targeted number of children, a level of “Real Grownupness” unlocked—it can be startling to come to face with this truth: we are never done. We never arrive, except in the sense that we are constantly arriving at this moment, and this one, and this one. We thought we had figured it all out, gotten it nailed down, created certainty. And yet…the only constant, as they say, is change. 

You may start to want things you didn’t used to want, or stop wanting things you once wanted. Or, others in your life may make a shift in wanting that unsettles your own life.

This is all the more reason that the work you do to move through Thirtysomething Panic—or Whateversomething Panic—will serve you for the rest of your life. There is no arrival—except every minute. Through this process, you will learn to work more effectively with your head, heart, and gut; you will become a better friend to yourself in good times and bad; you will practice taking action through resistance; you will learn to clarify what matters most to you, recognizing that this can shift over the course of time. 

The best you can, make peace with never being “done.”

If this sounds like you, it is time for you, too, to practice this foundational skill:
Normalize your experience and make the Isolation —> Belonging Shift. Know this, and practice saying it to yourself, over and over: It is normal to feel what I’m feeling. I am currently experiencing an aspect of the human journey that many, many other people experience. I belong. I am part of humanity. I am not alone in this. And this is not forever.
This Week’s Prompt: “Real Grownup”/Reality Grownup

Let’s have some fun and create some community connection with the Real Grownup pictures in our heads! 

Divide a piece of paper down the middle, landscape orientation. On the left side, draw your own image of a Real Grownup, complete with labels of what you thought you’d do, be, have, and/or feel when you “arrived” at adulthood. (Don’t let limited drawing skills stop you—stick figures are fine!) On the right side, draw Reality Grownup, representing what your life REALLY looks like today! Include the aspects of your life that young you could never have even imagined! (Hint: some of them are probably very positive.) Take a photo and send it to me so it can be part of our “Real Grownup/Reality Grownup Gallery.” 

Sharing your response may help a stranger more than you know: I’ve been getting feedback from readers that seeing other people’s responses is really helping them feel a sense of community. That’s exactly what I’m hoping for!

By sharing your prompt response, you give me permission to publish it or excerpts of it in future content, potentially with your first name (if you prefer for me to use just your first initial, tell me so in your email).

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