Tell me you haven’t heard it a thousand times: “Thank god my twenties are over! What a nightmare. I’m so much more confident and happy with myself now. If only I would have known everything would be fine!” As fatigued as I’ve become of platitudinal remarks about a decade and its appropriate corresponding feeling, I still privately visit this one when my head is spinning with existential uncertainty.
I offered it up to my brother Andy once, like a pathetic crumb, during one of our panic-stricken gchats about how we want to do and be and feel more something. His response was something like:
Honestly those comments have never made me feel better. I interpret them as ‘Thank god I’m out of the phase where there is still hope for me to do something worthwhile. Now that my options are fewer, it’s a relief and I can blame my circumstances on my age instead of my decisions and just accept things as they are.’
Since I’m no stranger to the blurry line between contentment and complacency, this felt like a very comfortably horrifying explanation. Maybe Andy was right. Maybe people weren’t stumbling upon some enlightened state after living longer than us. Maybe they’d merely given up.
Luckily for our anxiety, this interpretation of the advice not only gave us permission to dismiss it completely but to spiral further because now this. shit. was. time. sensitive.
My brother is in Panama right now and he’s texting me as I’m writing this.
Buzz. Beach photo.
Buzz. “Vacation is crazy.”
Buzz. “Time doesn’t exist and you’re not a loser when you don’t care.”
Surprisingly poignant given the current topic.
On the other side of this desire for more something is our confusion as to why we have it. Last night Ramey and I were talking about how tired we are of doing this dance. I’d had an unusually glum day and had been reveling in it while simultaneously denying myself the feeling because of how great my life is.
We laughed, almost sadistically, thinking about the number of times we’ve sat in a dark car or a dark restaurant or a dark living room listing off all the ways our lives were so amazing in an attempt to invalidate our listlessness. WHY DO WE ALWAYS HAVE TO LIST THIS SHIT OUT? WHY CAN’T WE JUST FEEL GOOD WITHOUT THINKING ABOUT IT? We were shouting at each other with these bewildered looks on our faces and laughing and kind of crying inside probably.
This is me and always has been me. Can you be both stuck in your head and stuck above, observing it? On a podcast the other day I heard a woman cite metacognitive people as the most successful, but so often it feels like chasing my own tail.
Last month, like a new-year-new-me cliché, I started seeing a therapist to get some help in putting these contradictory pieces together. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of an unbiased party who was ethically and professionally forced to indulge my every psychological whim (*evil laughter*) and now felt as good a time as any.
Over the holidays when I told my mom I was going to have my first session the next week she scoffed good-naturedly, like only a mother could. “You don’t need a therapist. You’re already thinking about the right stuff. You’re just doing it too much. You need to meditate.”
I had to admit I agreed a teensy bit. Part of me had been thinking of this shadowy therapist figure as an extension of my journal. You know, if my journal could nod along and be like “Yeah. Totally. You’re brilliant. You’re right. This stuff can’t be solved. Can you be MY therapist?”
Maybe this fucked up version of “getting help” says a lot about me.
Now I’m four sessions deep and my vision of a talking journal has been flipped on its head. Although I’d joked beforehand that I was only in it for the validation, I quickly realized that’s what I was desperately trying to get away from. And after I stopped trying to convince her I was remarkably together and intelligent, I’ve found it to be some of the most honest reflection I’ve ever done. It’s felt, in its best moments, like I went from shouting in an echo chamber to walking outside.
When I asked her at the beginning of our second session to push me and question me and not let me move swiftly past the sticky parts that don’t support whatever agenda I’m subconsciously pushing, she said that was fine with this blank sort of smile.
I still don’t know if she likes me or thinks I’m totally annoying, but I find that kind of thrilling in a stereotypical fucked up way and it’s likely some twisted projection of how I feel about myself.
It’s shocking how quickly my narrative veers off its planned course when driven by an iron-will to not bullshit my listener, and it’s through this candor that she’s pinpointed in me a tendency to over-intellectualize my feelings.
(Lol @everyone reading this who is like “HAHAHA YA THINK?”)
When she would ask me how something made me feel, for instance, I kept launching into massively overwrought webs of pseudo-intellectual considerations that begged a million more questions and moved us a fraction as far as we could have moved had I just said: “It made me feel sad.”
It’s seriously Psychology 101, I know, but the simple answer isn’t something I’ve ever been comfortable giving, and I’ve suddenly found it exhilaratingly novel to allow myself that luxury. It’s been eye-opening to revisit some of my psychological hang-ups through this lens of avoiding complexity.
There is something refreshing about approaching hard questions with literal brevity, even if that brevity is “I have no clue.” There is a finality to it that is healthy for me. I am forced to be honest about who I am and resign myself to the unknown. Answering a question with five more does nothing for me but feed my ego. It’s intellectual masturbation.
All this got me thinking more about the thirty or forty-something trope of Newfound Acceptance I’d brought up to Andy. I’ve started to wonder if the comfort of getting older isn’t so much about becoming happy with your life out of some tired sense of resignation as it is finally being honest with yourself about who you are.
So much of my existential unrest over past years ties back to this sense of failed potential. A failure to follow every path possible. A failure to center my life around different parts of my personality. A failure to try harder to be someone I wasn’t. A failure to be more whimsical and short-sighted and spontaneous. I was always too rooted, too calculating, too careful. I hated that about myself.
And when I think back to the moments where I felt sick with indecision about what I did or didn’t want or should or shouldn’t want, an element of complexity was added because I was – and still occasionally am – entertaining so many different versions of myself.
Of course decisions were hard to make and feelings were hard to triangulate when I was struggling to even parse out who I wanted to be from who I actually am from who I realistically had the potential to be. There were too many layers and angles to consider. It was (and can still be) paralyzing.
For example, I spent years during and after college feeling upset that I majored in business instead of design or journalism or fashion or hell, even psychology. Why the hell did I have to be so practical?! What 17-year-old cares more about impressing their parents with their overdeveloped practicality than following their dreams or becoming an interesting human?! What the hell was wrong with me!? How could I have been such a shell of a person?!
I used to scream this stuff at myself so hatefully and get caught in this twisted shame spiral that served no purpose aside from turning my brain into a self-destructive punching bag.
It wasn’t until more recently that I started to consider that maybe my level-headed, logic-driven decision about college was an expression of one of my inherent strengths rather than a denial of some true creative identity I was failing to nurture. And the key to that switch in thinking was learning to let go of this alternate art-school version of myself that I’d held on to when I was young that hadn’t materialized in my adult self the way I imagined it should or could have. And then ultimately learning to be okay with that.
It makes sense that we hold onto versions of ourselves that may not be true simply because we want them to be true. Or because we are told that with blunt force we can be anybody we want to be.
But maybe part of getting older is learning to let some of those go and accepting the unique shapes of our personalities. Maybe when people say being young is a confusing mess it isn’t just because it’s hard to entertain so many possibilities, but because it’s hard to entertain so many possibilities when you still haven’t been honest with yourself about who you are and accepted that.
And I’m not talking about accepting our shitty, immature, unevolved qualities or entirely fixable shortcomings. I’m talking about being completely dead honest with ourselves about where our natures and affinities net out, rather than where we wish they did. And trusting what parts of ourselves we’ve either consciously or subconsciously chosen to nurture or let drive our lives.
It sounds so simple and obvious. Like something I’ve heard a thousand times, but it wasn’t until I started observing my own thought-patterns with a therapist that I was able to put some of these thoughts next to each other without sending myself around a paradoxical loop.
At my work we talk a lot about how constraints in design challenges actually force designers to be more creative and in that way allow them more freedom because they don’t have to constantly consider some nebulous set of conditions that aren’t established at the outset.
If we apply this to how we approach our identities and allow them to inform our decisions, maybe time and experience provide us with the tools to put up the proper constraints in our lives, thereby allowing us more freedom to be creative and enjoy ourselves. And these constraints don’t appear because the opportunities have passed us by (necessarily), but because we’ve learned to intentionally pass them by in pursuit of the opportunities that better suit us.
Maybe that’s what people mean when they act like their age has afforded them a new set of lungs. It’s actually a new set of boundaries. Maybe what time does is afford us a healthy dose of acceptance.
It may have taken me 1,873 words to get here, but I’ve either genuinely debunked Andy’s rebuttal or come up with a fantastic way to stave off future bouts of existential hand-wringing.
I don’t think it really matters which and, not to be corny, but so it goes.