There’s a sort-of unspoken, but widely acknowledged, ‘life path’ we’re all expected to follow – but none of our journeys are exactly the same. Here, we’re exploring the mental health impact of deviating from the predicted ‘life milestones’ course, and how to handle it
The word ‘milestone’ is said to date back to the third century. While building a 53,000-mile network of roads around Europe, the Romans would mark their progress by placing a stone every 1,000 paces. These stone markers allowed road builders to marvel at just how far they had travelled along the road, while calculating how far they still had to go.
Today, we chart our progress in similar ways, but instead of using milestones as a celebration of our successes, we often use them to measure where we’re at in comparison to everyone else, leading us to berate ourselves for not being any further along the metaphorical road.
In a world that lauds overnight successes, and compiles ‘30 Under 30’ lists, we’ve become accustomed to setting timelines for what we feel we should accomplish, insisting that we must get married, start a family, or buy our first home before we reach a certain age.
But what happens when we miss the mark on those goals, and fall short of our self-imposed deadlines while everyone else seems to be racing ahead? Counsellor Dee Johnson says it can spark feelings of unworthiness, shame, and comparison.
“I see so many people burdened with shame, fear, and even embarrassment, that they’re not ticking these boxes in the unsaid timeline we seem to operate off,” she says. “This sense of failure can create a poor sense of self, which, on the more extreme end of the scale, can lead to maladaptive responses, ranging from depression and isolation to self-harm and substance abuse.”
Whether you’re sad to be single while all your friends are getting engaged, or approaching a big birthday without landing that high-flying career, missing a perceived milestone deadline can be a potent cocktail of disappointment, frustration, and inadequacy – and there’s proof that the pandemic may have added to the pressure.
A nationally representative survey from the Stanford Center for Longevity in the US, found many of us have delayed key milestones in the past 18 months. It discovered 68% of people are putting off getting married or entering a long-term relationship, 40% are putting the brakes on childbearing, and 30% of first-time buyers have decided to press pause on purchasing a home.
The scenario begs an obvious question: why are we in such a rush to achieve these milestones in the first place? Dee puts it down to social conditioning.
“There are strong cultural and social influences that suggest we need to achieve these markers in life. They’re unconscious expectations of what a successful life pattern looks like,” Dee explains. “When these things have brought happiness and security to someone we know, then it’s natural that we want the same for [ourselves]. It’s about personal fulfilment, and finding security emotionally and physically.”
From an evolutionary sense, we’re also hardwired to suss out where we are in the pecking order, and may feel desperate to fit in. “Making comparisons as to whether we are a success or a failure is ingrained in us right back into childhood. Just look at high achievers at school and sibling rivalry,” Dee points out.
The pressure to keep up with others may be driving our desire to have it all, but is it ever possible to make peace with being 20 paces behind where you want to be? With a willingness to see things differently, and consciously address your fears, it can be done.
1. Celebrate what you have achieved
It can be easy to get wrapped up in what everyone else is doing, but have you ever stopped to think about all that you have accomplished? According to Dee, doing so can really shift your perspective and bring relief.
It worked for Claire, 33, who says that as soon as she stopped getting wrapped up in the fact all her friends had mortgages, and started appreciating the amazing life experience she’d gained from travelling, the pressure to reach certain milestones melted away.
“I’d been so caught up in feeling like a failure that I’d failed to recognise all the amazing things I had achieved,” she says. “I began to realise that my milestones weren’t any less valuable than the ones my friends had accomplished; they were just different, and that’s OK.”
2. Don’t put conditions on your worth
One of the reasons missing milestones hurts so much is that it brings feelings of inadequacy.
“It’s a fallacy that you are only good enough if you have the new house, the latest car, the best engagement ring, or the big promotion,” she muses. “Sure, these things are good to have if they genuinely bring you joy and you haven’t sacrificed your values to get them, but it’s who you are that matters, not what you have.”
When you feel as though you’re falling short, do your best to remember that.
3. Fill in the gaps
It can be tempting to fixate on what we feel is missing in our lives. Dee’s advice? “Try to fill the gaps with interests and new skills like travel, creative pursuits, or sports. These activities build your self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence.”
While you’re at it, try practising gratitude. Dee says doing this daily allows you to change your “automatic response of focusing on what is missing in your life” to recognising your blessings, as well as your progress. Studies show it has the power to reduce social comparisons, too.
4. Seek help
When sifting through difficult emotions, it might be time to get some additional support.
“Talk to a mental health professional to process your understandable fears, jealousy, and lack of confidence,” Dee advises. “Allow yourself to let go, and explore where these feelings have really come from.”
There may even be value in opening up to trusted friends about how you feel. “You may well discover that their lives are not all rose-tinted,” Dee points out.
5. Find a new definition of success
Recently, across social media, a new wave of thought has urged us to celebrate those ‘later in life’ wins. Publishing a book at 50, getting married in your 40s, or landing your dream job at 35, are all still worthy of recognition.
If you feel your life is moving at snail speed, even small day-to-day achievements can be recognised and celebrated – and may help to bolster your self-esteem.
So, three cheers for Lucy, who got out of bed this morning despite not feeling her best. A round of applause for Daniel, who plucked up the courage to have that tricky chat with his boss. And put your hands together for Sarah, who laced up her running shoes today for the first time in two years.
Finally, a big pat on the back for you, for finishing this feature and facing your delayed milestones head on.