I’d been working with Angela* and her girlfriend of three years, Robyn*, for a few weeks. Unlike many of the couples I meet who have somewhat of a resentful energy toward one another, Angela and Robyn had a kind-hearted, sweet nature about them. They laughed at each other’s jokes, spoke highly of one another, and looked ready to do some real work to improve their relationship. But all of a sudden during one session, I noticed that there was something “off” about Angela’s energy. She appeared to be more morose, which catalyzed an individual session between the two of us to explore what was going on.
“You know,” she said as she chipped away at her fingernail polish. “I’m turning 30 in a week.”
When we talk about midlife crises, we typically think of 50-year-old men buying Ferraris, not 30-somethings. And yet, I’ve heard from countless individuals how emotionally turbulent it can feel to reach this age bracket. Gone are the days of blaming your mishaps on “being young”; being 30, evidently, has a connotation of responsibility and having your life together.
So, I thought I’d dedicate today’s blog post to discussing the emotional reactions that might come up for you if you’re in your 30s so you have some greater awareness of what to expect—and how you can cope in a healthy manner.
First Thing’s First: What’s Going On at This Life Stage?
A number of therapists, psychologists, and researchers have presented different ideas about stages of development, with one of the most commonly-cited ones being Erik Erikson’s eight stages of human development. According to the developmental psychologist, individuals deal with conflicts at different points in their life that, when resolved, give them new skills to carry with them to the next stage. Within these eight stages, 30-year-olds fall into the “Intimacy Versus Isolation” category, where life’s purpose revolves around developing close relationships with others, making commitments, and figuring out their careers. Fears of being isolated or not obtaining goals frequent the minds of people in this age bracket.
Gail Sheehy, a prize-winning journalist, also devoted an entire book, Passages, to her findings on how people experience different life stages. According to Sheehy, one’s twenties are about gaining a foothold in the adult world, trying on different roles and partners, and figuring out what they “should” be doing.
And then 30 hits.
Suddenly, those things that felt like they “fit” don’t seem to fit at all any more. As Sheehy states, “Suddenly, one is less concerns with what ‘should I do’ than what I ‘want to do.’” An inner voice of discontent develops and feelings of living a life that is too restricted surface. “The single person feels rushed to find a partner, the childless couple reconsiders children, and almost everyone who is married feels dissatisfied,” says Sheehy.
Additionally, our bodies might show a little more “wear and tear.” The weight doesn’t come off like it used to in our twenties, a time characterized by having McDonalds at 3am after a night of drinking and seeing no signs of the consequences. Hangovers are awful, wrinkles start showing, under-eye bags get darker, all signalling to our subconscious that aging doesn’t make an exception for us. These sneaky reminders are certainly no source of comfort, and a sense of urgency sets in that life is moving at a pace that simply seems too fast sometimes. I better find a partner soon! Time is running out! I want to have kids! How am I going to figure this all out!?
Indeed, it is this sense of urgency that I notice most among the thirty-year-olds with whom I work. Many of them feel like if they don’t have the perfect career or a partner who is husband/wife material, they have completely and utterly failed. Additionally, I see a striking similarity between the teenage years and the decade of being thirty. Erikson’s eight stages of development deem the teenage years the time of “Identity versus Role Confusion” where adolescents explore their behaviours, roles, and identities, often through continually comparing themselves to their peers. For whatever reason, I’ve noticed that these questions have their “second coming” when someone hits 30s. How do I measure up? Am I where everyone else is?
So, without further ado: what can we do to set ourselves up for success in our 30s?
1. Watch who you follow on social media.
Almost every time a 30-something goes on Instagram, someone else is getting married, having kids, getting promoted, or jet-setting to another luxurious vacation destination that they feel like they could never afford. This can really get to your head, so it’s important to either unfollow people, mute them on your account, or delete the app entirely. You also might want to consider following people who inspire you in other areas of your life. For example, if you feel a sense of urgency about not finding a partner, consider following women who have dedicated their lives to doing charity work.
2. Recognize that the questions you're asking are normal.
Many people assume that asking tough questions about their partner or career means that they must be unhappy. It might be comforting to know, however, that almost everyone is asking themselves these questions. Be careful to not judge yourself (or others) too harshly. Rather, show yourself and others some compassion for the fact that this is all just part of the growing up process.
3. Give yourself a reality check.