Depending on the society you live in and/or culture you identify in, there are certain expectations of accomplishment by the milestone ages of young adulthood. Much like the tell tale biological clock, the social clock ticks away throughout the lifespan signaling you to get your shit together with the rest of your age group. Career establishment, finding a life partner, starting a family, buying a home and so forth are markers set in a chronological order determined by society (hence it being a social clock). The biggest enforcers of this clock are within families i.e. your parents. They will assess you as you progress through young adulthood and give verbal reminders of where you “should” be by the age you are. They make fun comparisons to other people in your age group, usually friends and relatives who have accomplished what you have not. Society doesn’t do you any favors either, as the media drills what is appropriate for your chronological section of the population. Suddenly, the guy in the Lowes commercial kind of looks like you, as he sands down his deck and gets ready to grill some food for his family. The 20 something year old actress with her swollen baby bump stands next to the mid 30’s journalist with a smaller bump and they compare pregnancy symptoms and the helpfulness of their respective partners. You get the picture.
What happens when you haven’t satisfied all the “shoulds” for the age that you are? This is an existential exploration that some are perfectly okay with (i.e. they don’t care) and others derive extreme distress from. Here is where it gets personal.
I spent the bulk of my 20s in suspended animation. I don’t want to say it was time wasted; however, my eating disorder coupled with maladaptive cognitive distortions kept me from really establishing myself in the world as a career person, continuing my education or having a healthy romantic relationship. It wasn’t until my 30th year that I entered “the game.” I recovered, met and entered into what became a long term cohabitative relationship and went back to school to establish a more stable career. Now 35, I am at another transition point. The career is established, but my mind and body yearn for something more. I decided to go back to school again to make that happen. The relationship is no longer and the biological yearnings have kicked up their volume three-fold. I’m the healthiest physically I have ever been in my life, but emotionally I feel like I am in what psychologist Erikson described as the conflict of young adulthood – intimacy vs. isolation. His theory notes that a secure identity makes intimacy possible because you will be able to open your own self up to a permanent commitment to a partner, share in their interests and values as well as be faithful and develop love. If intimacy isn’t achieved, then isolation is the result, which for those who rejected intimacy or had insecure identity produces a sense of self-absorption or loneliness at the other extreme. You’re essentially in a state of searching for the ONE…beginning with YOU!
All those self-help books and talk shows do have a point when they stress being in a relationship with and loving yourself first before anyone else can love you. Attraction and passion come a lot more easily than compassion and love. American society is very attraction and passion driven. The latter two qualities are only possible if you have a secure sense of yourself. Starting from childhood, how your parents raised you will determine what sense of self you develop by early adulthood. Did they make you feel warm, supported and safe? Or were they nurturing in practical ways, but not very emotionally demonstrative of their love? Were they absentee due to work or their own life struggles, making you feel like you were last on the priority list? Although many people can still have a healthy self concept in some pretty gnarly childhood circumstances, the warm, supportive parenting style i.e. authoritative is going to set you up for success in the intimacy department.
Your parents might play a huge part in setting you up for success or failure, but taking responsibility for your own actions, thoughts and feeling is also important. Doing the work to build a secure sense of yourself. In exploring some of my existential issues, I find myself wishing I belonged in the “I don’t care” group who continue along their life path paying no mind at all to the social clock. The thing is, they have created their own social clock or as the English expression goes “they walk to the beat of their own drum.” Live for you; not for others’ expectations. I find that I haven’t been doing enough of the former and I’m not alone. And as if we need any more motivation, know that the buildup of stress hormones in the blood at this early age can cause your organs and body systems to fail sooner by the time you make it to a ripe old age. So, take a deep breath, let go of the distress and open your heart to loving you and creating a time line of goals that resonate with your needs and desires, separate from family, culture or society. The time is now…