Mackenzie Dunn
Updated Apr 27, 2020 @ 4:19 pm
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Nicky Lloyd, Getty Images

No matter how much we try to control our timelines, life is unpredictable. As adults, we know this—yet, oftentimes, we choose to cling on to this age-old idea that there’s somehow a “right” time to achieve our goals. We believe that if we plan it out just so, we’ll be able to find love, get married, have a child, buy a house, and excel in our career within an anticipated timeframe. Society tells us that if we don’t check these boxes by age 30, we’re behind. And when unpredictability steps in (hello, COVID-19), and that timeline changes, we’re left with anxiety, guilt, and dread about how we’ll get it all done.

Now, due to coronavirus, couples who were planning to have children are holding off because of job insecurity or unemployment. People who carefully planned their weddings are having to cancel—with some couples having to push back the date of their nuptials until the following year. Even online dating has become more complicated. Those who would have otherwise connected on a dating app and met in person are having to get creative and go on virtual dates. A global pandemic is not the kind of thing you can plan for, but it certainly makes envisioning a carefully planned future more difficult.

Before you beat yourself up for being a planner: Clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly, MD, tells HelloGiggles that there is nothing wrong with wanting to achieve milestones. “Humans naturally seek purpose and meaning in life,” she says. “When we have milestones to look forward to, they become markers that tend to add meaning and a tempo to life. Without important milestones, life could become a blur of unimportant or ordinary occurrences.”

Historically, Dr. Manly says that these milestones were important because they symbolized the ending of one period and the beginning of something new. She explains that, for many, rites of passage like marriage and children are highly symbolic on a personal, familial, and religious or spiritual level, and that’s where a lot of the pressure can come in.

Ages ago, the only time women would leave the care of their parents was when they were married off with a partner, according to Dr. Manly. While that’s now an outdated idea, society still puts pressure on couples to “seal the deal” in some way, and we’re still made to believe that finding a forever person at a young age is important.

In a survey conducted by lifestorage.com, when respondents were young, 72% of them believed that they would be married by age 30. Yet in reality, only 44% of respondents were married by age 30, a huge gap between what people expected and what actually transpired.

Our expectations don’t always meet our reality, yet these self-imposed timelines remain rigid in our brains. If we don’t achieve them according to our own or others’ expectations, stress and anxiety can arise. Dr. Manly says, “When this occurs, the milestone can turn from a positive marker or goal into a source of negativity and distress.”

Dr. Steven Sultanoff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and interpersonal skills and conflict resolution trainer, explains that this all stems from how we see our own goals. “If these goals are perceived as aspiration, things you genuinely want to achieve because you truly desire them (and do not view them as a requirement in life), you’ll be positively motivated to achieve them.” However, if those goals start to be viewed as a measure of self-worth, your motivation to achieve it will be distress-driven.

When life doesn’t go as planned, we often berate and negatively judge ourselves for the lack of achievement. The resulting feelings can be of inadequacy, depression, guilt, anger, or even resentfulness.

Licensed clinical social worker and life coach Kim Grevler tells us, “The worst thing we do when things don’t go [according] to plan is [to] think, ‘There must be something wrong with me.’” That’s when the anxiety and self-doubt set in, which are both detrimental to our confidence and mental well-being.

She advises that if you’re feeling anxious about the timeline you’ve set for yourself, take a good look at where that motivation comes from. Is it self-imposed pressure? Are your friends or family placing stress on you? Is there an idea that society will judge you if you don’t hit a certain milestone?

“Whenever we’re living our lives to get some sort of external validation, we’re going to set ourselves up for anxiety,” Grevler says.

This isn’t shocking, considering that a quick scroll through social media will bring up dozens of photos of new engagements, weddings, babies, and career advancements from friends and acquaintances that can quickly make us question ourselves and our achievements. The cycle of self-doubt is easy to get caught up in, especially if we’re not willing to recognize why we’re putting these parameters for our lives in place. Plus, as Grevler points out, “Insecure thoughts about what it will mean if these boxes are not checked prevent us from making these important, potentially life-changing decisions with a clear mind.”

The emotionally healthy perspective is to set goals based on the clarity of what you want versus what you should or have to achieve and then work toward them. If they’re not achieved “on time” (or at all), recognize that the only thing that has happened is that you didn’t reach that goal. And that’s it.

Instead of trying to control things that are often out of your control (an approach that will only make you feel helpless), Grevler advises reframing these ideas internally and taking a good look at what they mean to you. For instance, why are you voraciously swiping on dating apps? Is it because you’re genuinely trying to meet someone, or are you just thinking that’s what you’re supposed to be doing? Why are you placing pressure on your partner to propose? Is it because that is something you genuinely want, or is it because it’s been three years and everyone is asking when it’s going to happen?

Grevler recommends these steps to reframe your thoughts about life’s timelines:

  1. Acknowledge that the anxiety is there. It’s empowering to take your deepest feelings into account. Once you know that you may be struggling with anxiety around these issues, you’ll be in a better place to tackle them.
  2. Ask yourself, “If this happens, then what?” and recognize the insecure thoughts that may arise. You may think “If I’m not in a serious relationship by the time I’m 30, it’s because I’m not worthy of love.” Grevler says to pay attention to the ways you might be talking down to yourself, and then ask yourself: “How is this a productive thought?”
  3. Get comfortable with the gray area. Not everything in life needs to be so black and white. As Grevler says, “An all-or-nothing mindset is a recipe for disaster.” Instead, strive to be more comfortable in the gray area. You may want to hit those checkpoints or milestones, but you don’t necessarily have to place a timeline on them. Find a balance between what you want and what you need.
  4. Talk to yourself like you’re advising a friend. We’re often much gentler with our friends than we are with ourselves, so take some of those encouraging words and give them to yourself. If a friend came to you with a concern about not meeting her expectations for life by a certain age, you’d likely be kind and encouraging, focusing on the goals she has achieved and telling her not to be so hard on herself. Lots of things can happen that may disrupt your goals and the timelines you envisioned for them, but at the end of the day, you deserve to be a little kinder to yourself.