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.
Most people’s tendency is to judge others much more favourably than themselves. In turn, the assumptions they make about others are usually overly optimistic and generous. Please hear me when I say that just because someone is in a relationship does not mean they are happy. I have worked with couples who get divorced after a month of being married because they are unhappy, yet people on the outside are so quick to assume that they are “more successful” than they are because they got married in the first place. Start being mindful of the overly-positive judgments you might be making about others. You have no idea what’s going on behind closed doors and, quite frankly, it’s none of your business.
4. Problem solve.
What other people are doing is none of your business. Put all of that energy that’s being directed to others towards what you want out of life and how you intend to make that happen. So many of us, naturally, get stuck in the realm of simply complaining. Get to the next step by problem-solving how you might make some of your goals happen. This might mean asking your friends to set you up on a date, creating an online dating profile, talking to your boss about getting a raise, creating a budget and sticking to it, etc. Less complaining, more action.
5. Be grateful for what you have.
I know, I know, this can sound so cheesy and cliche. But honestly, you wouldn't believe the difference it can make to start focusing your attention on what you have versus what you lack. There are a number of fantastic apps to assist you with this, like “Gratitude” and “Grateful.” I can say from firsthand experience that implementing gratitude practices in my daily life catalyzed a tremendous improvement in my mood and research backs this up: gratitude researcher Robert Emmons found that gratitude effectively increased happiness and reduced depression, and other studies have shown that it enhances empathy, improves sleep, and improves self-esteem.
6. Focus on yourself.
I've noticed that people might appear to be very envious of what someone else has, yet when I ask them if they want that exact lifestyle, they don’t. For example, someone might be jealous that their friend has enough disposable income to go to Paris once a year, but when they reflect on what it would be like to have 16-hour days, the appeal disintegrates. As mentioned previously, there’s usually a funny filtering process that occurs when look at others where we are more generous, optimistic, and giving than we are with ourselves. It can be easy to envy what people have without considering the context behind it or the work that goes into it. Some things are only achievable through doing a lot of other things, too, and if you aren’t willing to do that, then the next step is to accept what you do have (see point #6).
7. Focus on your strengths.
Pretend that someone else is describing you. What would they say they like about you? What would they say you’re good at? What do you know you’re skilled at? Then, consider where there might be opportunities to use these strengths more frequently or intensely. The more you’re able to use them, the more confident you might feel in yourself.
The Bottom Line
If you're about to turn 30 or are just generally having some difficulties with this decade of your life, know that you are not alone. When we look at some of the self-doubt you're experiencing or the reflective questions you're asking about your life, it's all actually quite normal from a developmental perspective. The key thing during this phase is to stay focused on yourself— your goals, your desires, your successes. Don't get stuck dwelling on what others have that you don't. Take a minute to reflect on what you have accomplished and only compare yourself to yourself.
If you feel as though some of the feelings you're experiencing are unmanageable on your own, email firstname.lastname@example.org to book an appointment and help make some sense of it all. You've got this.