I’ve noticed a pattern emerging amongst my fellow thirty-somethings. Every one I talk to seems to be asking themselves the same questions:
What am I doing with my life?
Why aren’t I as successful as (insert name of friend/foe/celebrity/fictional character)?
Why haven’t I achieved absolutely everything I can think of?
How on earth would I fit it all in, anyway?
I wonder if this is symptomatic of being this age. I think we all had certain expectations about what it would feel like to be 30+ and it’s hard to find that they haven’t come true. Just because our careers are ten years old, it doesn’t mean we necessarily all know what we want to do with our lives. Just because we’re in relationships, it doesn’t mean we feel grown up enough to tackle the very adult stuff around the corner – babies, mortgages, cars, commitments. And just because we have ambitions, it doesn’t mean we’ve made the progress with them that we want, or that we yet know how to even get them off the ground.
My friend told me the other day that any time she sees a film set in space, she’s reminded that she’s not an astronaut, so what has she even achieved really? I mean, she’s run the marathon, climbed Snowdon, cycled 100 miles in one go, and travelled the world, but she isn’t a spacewoman so OBVIOUSLY she’s failed.
I get it, I feel the same every time I read a book (which is frequently). I keep a list of everything I’ve read this year and it’s currently also doubling up as a list of everything I haven’t written. Way to turn a positive into a negative, Charlotte!
Welcome to the modern world where perspective is in short supply. But how do we drag ourselves out of this rut? Here are my suggestions:
These people you’re comparing yourself to – who are they, exactly?
I seem to waste a worrying amount of time comparing myself to people I don’t even know. People I follow on Twitter and Instagram, famous people, people on the street who I assume based on their jeans and top combination are nailing life…
But this is ridiculous. You know nothing about these people – about their lives, their backgrounds, their problems, their anxieties, their connections, their ANYTHING. You’re just letting your emotions be affected by a set of circumstances you in no way understand. By all means, be inspired by the achievements of others, but don’t feel bad because you haven’t got the same list; it’s a total waste of your time.
“But what if you’re comparing yourself to someone you do know?” you cry.
My response is this: no two human beings are the same and therefore the odds of achieving exactly the same things are extremely low. We bring different skills, perspectives, motivations and energy levels to everything that we do so we’re simply not going to live our lives in the same way.
I think it’s human nature to feel envious when we see people doing well in their field – particularly if we’re feeling under confident about our achievements within our own – but it isn’t healthy or helpful to get down about it. Why didn’t you come up with the same idea as them? Well, maybe it’s because you don’t have the expertise or the interest to do so, or, if you do, perhaps you just don’t have the time and space to have got there just yet. It’s not about making excuses – if you want something give it everything you’ve got – but don’t beat yourself up for getting there in your own time. And certainly don’t waste energy being envious of achievements you don’t even aspire to have – you could definitely be putting that to much better use.
If you want to feel more positive, you’re going to have to put the effort in
We aren’t tuned as human beings to focus on the positive aspects of our lives. I recommend reading this article on The Atlantic about how to build a happier brain. It’s all about the fact that, despite the vast level of positive things going on in our lives, we’re naturally wired to focus on the negative. This is because, way back when, we’d need to put real effort into staying alive – to not being eaten by lions or bears or whatever – so it made sense to always focus on the negative because otherwise the negative might kill us. But now, all being well, that isn’t a risk, and the negative aspects of our day are really not so bad and yet we still find reasons to focus on them because it’s the most natural position to take. So if we want to change this, we have to make our brains catch up with how good modern life actually is – to bring in the good thoughts, to make positivity a part of our day, and to gradually rewire our brains.
I know, as if we don’t already have enough to do!
Be honest about how much you really care
One of the most infuriating things about feeling inadequate, is that we can sometimes let ourselves feel it about things we don’t even really care about. You can find out that somebody else has been promoted into a role you really couldn’t bear to do, and still feel terrible because – even though you didn’t want it – you still feel that you’ve failed. You’ve failed by not being ambitious enough, in not pushing for the big title and money. Whereas actually you’ve succeeded – you dodged a position you didn’t want.
Knowing what you don’t want is just as much of an achievement as knowing what you do. It doesn’t feel like it, but it is. This knowledge frees you up to spot things that you would enjoy. Life is just one big whittling down process and you’re now one item further down on the list. Why don’t we go out for drinks to celebrate THAT?
But if you do want it, have you really tried yet?
OK, I’ll go first – NOPE. Not really. There are things that I’m frustrated to have not yet achieved that I have barely even attempted, so how can I justify feeling blue about it? At least try and fail before making time for sulking.
One of my biggest issues is focus: too many plates spinning at one time and not enough time and energy dedicated to getting the perfect turn on just one of them. This is partly down to being indecisive – I want to do everything and ideally immediately – but there’s also some fear, self-doubt, and basic poor time management thrown in for good measure.
These things are all resolvable. Don’t be scared – what’s the worst that can happen? Believe you can do it – because if you don’t, who else will? And just organise yourself better. I’m not going to suggest getting up earlier (although that is of course an option), I think it’s more about how you use the time you have. For me that means less dicking about on Twitter and more productivity.
Be a more informed user of the Internet, watcher of television and reader of magazines
Modern life is all about projection and it’s exhausting. Social media is filled with positive news about people’s jobs and relationships and whatnot and it can feel hard to escape from. I do it – I share things I’ve written because how else am I going to get people to read anything? But if social media were an honest reflection of life attempting to realise your dreams, mine would be a constant stream of updates about rejections I’ve had, ideas I can’t quite work through, and snacks I’ve eaten and regretted. The way we represent ourselves online can never be the whole picture so we have to put the effort into remembering that.
An advert came on for clothes to wear to a Christmas party the other day and I was reminded that every single year around this time I start to feel inadequate about my Christmas social life and wardrobe. Why do I do this?! It’s just advertising! It wants you to feel bad about yourself so that you’ll buy stuff.
The point is we have to make the decision to tune out, to remember that what we’re seeing isn’t the whole truth, and to try and live our lives in the present rather than through a screen. If nothing else, I simply don’t have the cash to live any other way.
Whether you’re married, or in a relationship, or single and happy, or a huge fan of your job, or blissfully distracted by your hobbies, or just a really kind, generous and funny person, or just great at applying liquid eye liner… you’ve got lots going for you. We just have to learn how to acknowledge it, to identify what else we want, to put plans in place to get there, and to do so without getting distracted by what other people are doing.
I’m not saying it’s easy – I certainly continue to struggle with it – but it is necessary. This is all a question of time and priorities and feeling down because you’re not living somebody else’s life feels like a very bad choice for the top of the list.