The question:Whenever I meet up with old friends from my small hometown this time of year, I always start doubting myself. I’m single and all my friends my age (30) are married with kids. I enjoy my artistic city life with my friends and I’m not even sure if I want children. How can I cope with feeling so different?
Many years ago, I accidentally killed a lily plant because I mistakenly assumed that if I stuck it in a sunny spot and watered it regularly, it would flourish like my philodendron. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my lily couldn’t handle direct sunlight.
People are a lot like plants. Although we all need the same basic ingredients to thrive — for example, love and physical sustenance — the conditions required for flourishing vary from person to person. Some plants bloom seasonally; others every few years. Similarly, many factors, including parenting, genetics, social class, culture and luck affect the timing and rhythms at which our lives unfold.
When comparing yourself to other people your own age, it’s important to remember that personal growth is not a race — it’s a lifelong organic process. Renowned Swiss psychologist Carl Jung believed that becoming one’s own person was the primary goal of human development. Besides achieving physical and mental health, he held that people who embrace their unique way of being in the world are more harmonious, mature, responsible, socially conscious and forgiving of human nature and the universe.
Many of my clients struggle with feeling different, though not necessarily about having families. Sadly, I detect a hint of shame attached to such feelings. It’s as if there is some universal cultural standard of normal, of which people think they are falling short. Sure, there are specific lifestyle trends associated with different times in our lives. Development psychologist Erik Erickson posed that each stage or chapter of our lives presents a specific challenge that, if mastered successfully, builds a person’s sense of competence, leading him or her to a new chapter with different challenges. For example, young adulthood is about establishing intimacy with others versus becoming isolated.
But there are many avenues for creating intimacy. Being in relationships and starting families is just one of them. But so is cultivating deep friendships, being part of a community and expressing oneself through creativity. My suggestion to you is as follows:
1. Figuratively speaking, think about what kind of plant you are. Ask yourself what are the conditions — the kind of environment, the types of friends, the forms of nourishment— that will help you blossom into the best version of yourself.
2. Identify your life purpose. Ask yourself what contribution you can make to the world when you’re being yourself. The world wouldn’t operate well if everyone did the same thing.
3. Let go of shame and celebrate the qualities that make you unique. Imagine how you would see yourself differently if you regarded these qualities were strengths.
4. Identify obstacles to creating more intimacy in your life. You might do this with trusted friends or a psychotherapist.
5. Find role models, people you admire, maybe even who’ve made a name for themselves, because of their uniqueness. They are in no short supply.
6. Remember, there is no one “correct” way to blossom. Marriage and children are not the only “fruit” of one’s labors, or measure of a person’s value as a human being. Each flower has its own unique beauty. Find yours and share it with the world.