I’m going to let you in on a little secret: growing up doesn’t exist – at least not in the form that our conventional wisdom tells us.
In my private practice I work with a lot of 20- and 30-somethings. The question of how to be a real grown-up is a frequent undercurrent to the work that we do. Here are a few ways I hear it come out:
I feel like I should know what I want to do with my life by now.
All my friends are already married with kids while I feel completely overwhelmed by all the dating apps.
It seems like other people know how to keep their lives organized and get stuff done; I just can’t seem to figure it out.
To clarify, I do think we’re all growing in some direction at any given time. Even if we’ve plateaued, we’re still progressing through time and therefore growing in the same direction for the moment. Sometimes things that feel like going backwards might be a detour on the way to a different route we’re headed towards.
Growing up Isn’t Real
The issue comes when we believe that there’s supposed to come a time in life when we have it all figured out – the bills are all paid and our email inbox is zeroed out; we have the 6+ figure job, the committed partner, 2.5 kids, and the shiny electric vehicle that we bought in cash; and we’ve achieved ultimate mental, physical, and spiritual health.
We believe that once that day comes then we can finally relax. Until then, we work the hamster wheel of life hard until we grind it into the ground and the wheel can no longer function. Then we assess ourselves in our horrid state and tell ourselves that we’ve failed at growing up. We tell ourselves that we’ve failed at life.
It’s not Your Fault
It’s not your fault for thinking this way. From when we’re young we’re taught that we always need to be working towards the next goal: we need to do well in Kindergarten so we can do well in the rest of elementary school, so we can then do well in middle school, so we can then do well in high school, so we can then get into a good college, so we can then get the perfect job and spouse and kids and work our bottoms into the ground until we retire and die.
We’ve been trained to be bad adults. This formulaic approach tells us to follow these steps in order to eventually become a full-blown bona fide grown-up. Once we get there we’re set up to believe we’re failing in life because we inevitably are unable to reach all of those impossible goals.
A Real Grown-Up
What if we are all just little children bumbling around together? Maybe we bump into each other while we make our way and we have fun playing while we’re at it. What if we could stop worrying about the day in the future when we finally grow up and instead we just play a game of four-square together? Growing up is the journey of never knowing what the heck we’re doing, but always learning something new along the way and making and losing friends while we’re at it, and then making new ones again.
What if our goal in life was simply to always learn something new? What if part of growing up is accepting that some part of us will always need help from others, will always be behind on laundry, oil changes, and text messages? What if it’s okay that you may never figure out how to cook that potluck dish just right?
A real grown-up can “own up” to their imperfections. Knowing that life is a never ending growth journey empowers us to acknowledge our mistakes and to invite others to offer us feedback. This in turn creates opportunities to make changes, receive more feedback, and then continue to grow more.
A Note on Choosing out of Growth
At the other extreme of the “have it all together” version of being a grown-up are those who feel defeated by imagining the prospect of even attempting to grow up, and they opt out of growth altogether. The idea of adult life is scary. We can become fearful of the world. We can even hold ourselves back because we’re fearful of what we’re capable of and we’re afraid that even then we’ll still mess things up.
My point is: the world is an incredibly scary place. Being an adult is completely terrifying, and I’m inviting you to go for it knowing you will most definitely make lots of mistakes along the way. But at least you can say you’re leaning into life, owning the wins and losses along the way, and making adjustments as you go.
…Now that’s a real grown-up!