“I’m not where I’m supposed to be. Everyone around me is married or engaged. They have kids. A house. Letters next to their name or a senior role. A retirement fund. They’ve even found time to travel the world in there somewhere. They’re right on track.
I’m behind in life. I wasted so much time. I spent money on useless shit. I’ve squandered some of my most formative years. I’ll never catch up.”
I hear this all the time from clients. It’s another sneaky way perfectionism tells you you’re not good enough; that you’re a failure; that you ought to be ashamed of where (and who) you are today.
If you’re consumed with this thought, here are a few reminders that will (hopefully) help it have less power over you.
- Remember we all have different stories that led to where we are today
I was speaking to a client recently who considers himself a massive failure. At 32, he’s in a “dead-end job” with “nothing to show for it.” When this client (we’ll call him Diego) was 12, his dad left home. He started working as soon as the grocery store downstairs would hire him, helping his mom pay rent and look after his 3 younger siblings. He dropped out of high school in eleventh grade because he got a full-time job laying concrete. At $16/hr, this made far more sense than finishing school. A year later, he got a job at the local mill, and he was making $22/hr by the time he was 19. While his high school friends were livin’ it up in college, he was working to support his family. He eventually finished his high school diploma, but stayed at the mill. Thirteen years later, some of Diego’s friends make more than triple what he makes, and Diego considers himself a failure.
In stark contrast to Diego’s story, I never had to work in high school. In fact, I only worked during summers throughout my undergrad. When I realized I wanted to go to grad school, I scaled back (slightly) on the my extracurriculars (drinking), and started volunteering so I could beef up my applications. And guess what? I was accepted. So I powered through 7 years of school while many of my classmates worked 2 jobs to pay for tuition. So yes, I don’t feel “behind” in my career, but who do you respect more upon reading the two stories?
When we can see the whole picture, we can find understanding–even respect–for where we’re at today. This goes for our relationship status, our assets, our worldliness, you name it. Consider the journey you’ve been on thus far. Have you been through illness, injury, depression, anxiety, poverty, trauma, heartbreak, abuse, addiction, or loss? Did you experience responsibilities beyond what the average child or teen might have experienced? Instead of just looking where you’re at today, tell yourself your whole, unedited story. Find compassion for what you consider to be mistakes or regrets; remember we make decisions based on the information we have at the time (hindsight is 20/20!); and consider the opportunities someone you’re comparing yourself to might have had that you didn’t.
- Remember so many of the “wins” in life are random
On the one hand, I like to think nothing is random. I impart meaning on everything, from dreams to missed connections to the countless times I’ve broken Apple devices. Some might call it rationalizing. I like to trust it’s all supposed to happen.
Random or not, it’s important to recognize that what we deem “success” isn’t solely the result of hard work. There isn’t a direct correlation between dates a person’s been on and falling in love, or hours worked and job opportunities. So many of the opportunities we stumble upon are the result of happenstance interactions–the “right place right time” kinda stuff. These wins (and future wins) are only slightly in your control, so quit beating yourself up for having not manifested more superficial successes.
- Consider how you’re measuring “value”
I was chatting with a client the other day who was telling me her financial advisor said her savings were on the “lower end.” This had understandably evoked anxiety and shame within her. She thought, “Omg, I missed the memo! What does it mean for my savings to be on the ‘lower end?’ Where did I go wrong??” But unlike many folks whose happiness is largely influenced by investments, this client values experiences. She’s scuba-dived and cliff-jumped and lived abroad and travelled most of the world. If there was an “experiences savings account,” this gal would be filthy rich. And while you may not be able to buy a Maserati with experiences, what’s worth more to you?
ALSO, remember that positive experiences like travel/love/fun aren’t the only type that qualify for experiential wealth. It’s through our losses, trauma, challenge, and heartbreak that we develop resilience (if we have the necessary conditions for moving through trauma and developing such resilience). There are strengths within you because of these painful past experiences–strengths that require “overcoming” to develop. There might be emotional intelligence, a deep capacity for empathy and compassion, perseverance, perspective, patience, leadership, etc. So while you believe you “lost years” due to that death/heartbreak/injury/addiction, trust that you were getting yo’ PhD in LIFE at that time.
- Remember that being “On Track” doesn’t equate to happiness
If being “behind” is what’s making you unhappy, you’d be happy if you were “on track,” right? Doubtfully. It’s true that your critical voice might be muted in the areas where you believe you’re good enough, but perfectionism is quite crafty in finding ways of stealing happiness from you, especially when we tend to always be focused on the next milestone or goal for fleeting satisfaction. This is why we see so many wildly “successful” individuals with their “picture perfect” lives who are unfulfilled, and why why many developing countries rank much higher on happiness scales. Meaning, connection, mindfulness, self-compassion, and health are far more reliable tickets than the white wedding or C-level role.
So the next time you’re on Insta wondering why you don’t have 135k followers or property or a spouse and two kids, come back to this post and remember you’re exactly where you’re supposed to say. And for eff’s sake, unfollow them unserving accounts!