Originally published in the Women’s Therapy Project Northwest Fall Newsletter
The Development of People in their 20s and 30s Today
Here’s the scenario for many young people these days: In their early teens, they started hearing about the “mid-life crisis,” a virus of disruption that seemed to loom among adults. Maybe they learned that their parents were getting divorced. Or their dad needed to transition in his career. Their mom wanted a life that she couldn’t have while married. The same thing was happening in households all around the neighborhood. Parents were struggling and unhappy. They wanted something they couldn’t quite explain and the kids couldn’t quite understand. TV sitcoms depicted adulthood as being drab, and movies repeatedly showed the dad-character throwing-off the trappings of a confining life in search of something more compelling. All the adults seemed lost. And the kids thought, “Is this what I have to look forward to when I grow up?”
If you were raised among a culture of disenchanted adulthood and an expectation of a crisis throwing everything into question, your unconscious would concoct one of two plans for your future: 1) avoid growing up, or 2) never relent in pursuing an adulthood rich with meaning. Today’s individuals in their teens, 20s, and 30s were raised in this predicament, and its effects can be seen in the therapy room (when they finally make the call). They share a similar sensibility: the future seems bleak. They’re terrified of waking up in a decade to an empty existence. It is as if the midlife crisis has arrived earlier, prompting a similar search for meaning at the outset of adulthood instead of in the middle. It’s the “quarter-life crisis.”
What People in their 20s and 30s Are Looking For Today
Individuals in the first half of adulthood today want vibrant, rich lives, but often struggle to imagine what such a life would tangibly look like. In a society largely devoid of deep spiritual or cultural traditions, they know instinctively that something is missing, but they often don’t know where to begin looking for what has been lost.
Meanwhile, the world seems to be falling apart around them. There is suffering all around them, all over the news, and all over the world, and they often feel that they have been afforded more economic and social mobility than most people ever experience.
These two factors place them in a paralyzing double bind. At the moment they begin dreaming of pursuing a meaningful life, they ask themselves: who am I to want more than I already have?
They are also, by and large, more traumatized from the daily effects of society, familial strife, economic uncertainty, illness, and life events than they’re comfortable accepting, because all that suffering seems so normal. It’s everywhere.
What might appear externally as “delayed adolescence” or “apathy”—labels this generation has heard far too many times—is, at root, often grief and debilitating existential pondering. Beneath much of the anxiety, depression, disorientation, and “failure to launch” is fear about the life ahead of them and guilt for the life they want. Like Siddhartha, the young Buddha, relative economic security has combined with an awareness of suffering, leading to a necessity of self-exploration and search for greater meaning. Except some of these seekers can’t seem to get up the courage to take the journey.
The Value of Therapy for Individuals in the First Half of Adulthood
In a society that lacks ancient spiritual traditions, the therapeutic container is the modern church. It is the womb of the great mother, and the distant mountain temple. In a society that is fast-paced, heavily oriented towards the intellect, and absent of deeply rooted cultural traditions, the therapeutic space is a moment of calm and quiet. It is the entry into the forest or the calm ocean waves, where the breeze and the earth and one’s own thoughts can be heard.
The therapeutic space has the potential to support these seekers to understand their suffering as providing insight toward the life that calls them, not simply as a disease in need of medication, or a lineage of pain. As therapists, we hold the space for the internal awakening to be experienced. More than anything, these individuals need support in listening to their own lives. They cannot figure out what kind of career or life they want simply by looking outside of themselves and querying friends, the Internet, or you for advice. They need to go in. They need support in hearing their unconscious, their instincts, their emotions, and their creative selves. There has not been much space for that in their lives. Therapy can provide an enduring space for them to come to know themselves as whole people, as spiritual people, and as people with the imagination to make the world a richer place. If they can hear what calls from within, they can take steps towards the meaningful life they dream about and move out of the constricting crisis that plagues them.
Originally published in the Women’s Therapy Project Northwest Fall Newsletter
This piece originally published on Mac’s List
The pursuit of a college education may be a long-term blessing and a short-term affliction. A bachelor’s degree provides some economic freedom, but it does not always offer clarity on who you are or who you want to be. If you’re like most people who pursued higher education, you grew up with every stage of life laid out in front of you: kindergarten led to first grade and so on. It was not until the precipice of college graduation that you were expected to figure it all out on your own.
The desperate search for one’s own passion may be derided as a crisis of privilege, a “First World problem,” but the existential call to be the writer of one’s own destiny is deeply human. The urge towards the creative life is innate in all of us. When we are no longer chased by wolves or the threat of starvation, we are chased by ourselves.
The cries “be who you are!” and “know who you are!” are not easily silenced, and attempts to do so will only transform into addictions, foul moods, and physical complications.
So how do you figure out what you want and who you are? In the early 20th century, the poet Rainier Marie Rilke wrote to a despondent 19-year-old young man in “Letters to a Young Poet” with timeless counsel for job seekers everywhere: “There is only one thing you should do,” Rilke wrote. “Go into yourself.”
Esoteric? Sure. You cannot easily place this advice among a list of things to do. But if the advice is understood and heeded, the ultimate rewards are unparalleled.
Through self-inquiry and good counsel, answers to the tangible questions of life begin to make themselves heard. Your anxiety and confusion, your headaches and stomachaches, all have information for what may be off track, they’re not simply symptoms to be silenced in the pursuit of the more conscious goals.
If you can learn when you’re off track by how your moods and body respond, you can learn too where your path lies. This takes some degree of faith, to be sure, but it only takes a few synchronistic successes for you to discover that you have a personal GPS sitting inside your chest.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell’s famous adage echoes Rilke’s: “When you follow your bliss, doors will open where you wouldn’t have thought there were doors.” Campbell uses the word “bliss” as a substitute for instinct, a path not lacking in terror and uncertainty but ultimately providing the greatest payoff. Our wants often only become clear after listening to all the other stuff of life.
In fairy tales, it is the awkward third brother who wanders off in the least anticipated direction, listening to the animals and following the path of a windswept feather, who ultimately finds the gold and marries the princess. Going into yourself and following your bliss means learning to listen to who you are innately. Learning what you’re passionate about begins with discovering and acknowledging who you are, not simply what you are expected to be.
This piece originally published on Mac’s List – April 19, 2013