Maybe it’s an oldest-child thing, my need to do All The Things first (or as soon as possible). Education, career, marriage, house, international vacations, babies, etc. – I keep them all in an often-visited, often-anguished-over mental checklist. (Though – that checklist part might be more of a Virgo thing.)
Whenever I hear news of someone else accomplishing one of these Things, my initial reaction of “YAY I’m so happy for them!” is quickly and unfortunately swallowed up by “Holy crap, why haven’t I done that yet? What am I doing wrong?! Am I failing at life?!?” (Did I mention I’m a Type-A oldest-child Virgo? A triple threat.)
I realize that it’s impossible and unhealthy to compare anyone else’s trajectory to my own. That each person’s past, personality and priorities render them fabulously unique and completely incomparable to me. And yet. My mind can’t help but collect and catalogue these widely recognized markers of legitimacy that I’ve convinced myself I need to feel like my life is “on track.” And when I let it, it weighs me down something fierce.
It’s not always a negative energy. It’s driven me to pursue wild dreams, it’s held me accountable to them, and it’s kept me climbing ever upwards every time I accomplish one. But, it’s also blinded me. Driven me to commit to a doomed starter marriage and bound me too long to a job I had outgrown. Plus, it’s just a generally unhealthy mindstate to be in – all future and no present.
I felt weird about writing this post without some sort of anecdote for this misplaced fear of mine. So! Here’s what I do to get back on track when I start to feel like I’m falling behind:
There’s nothing like giving thanks for what you do have, to stop you worrying about what you don’t have. Perspective! Whenever I start angsting about unrealized goals or unattained things, I stop everything and make myself list out three things that I’m super-thankful for that day. They can be big, like “finally finding the love of my life,” or small, like “the bunch of peonies I bought myself that make me smile every time I look at them.” In fact, I’m trying to make a daily habit out of these gratitude lists – they’re an excellent way to end each day, regardless of my state of mind.
Talk it out.
Mind you, this isn’t complaining. This is constructive, self-aware truth-time with a trusted confidant. Someone who will let you spill the not-so-pretty inner workings of your brain for a bit, then (however sweetly) ask you hard questions, and hold you accountable to any realizations you uncover.
Sometimes even just hearing yourself saying something out loud diffuses some of its power.
Often I just need to remind myself of how far I’ve come, to reassure myself that I am constantly moving forward (however slowly it may seem at the time). I think back to what my life was like 1, 2, or 5 years ago – and compare it to where I am now. I remember what I was worrying about then, what seemed insurmountable and dramatic, what I wanted more than anything. I then remember how those issues worked themselves out, or became unexpected opportunities, and remind myself that the same will happen with whatever I’m currently consumed by.
It also reminds me how the pace of my life has ebbed and flowed over the years. Sometimes slow and languorously, sometimes in awkward fits – but always exactly what I needed at the time. Whether I was afraid of falling behind or not.
Liz works at Braid Creative, shaping, branding and visioning for creative entrepreneurs. She lives, plays, eats and drinks her heart out in Durham, North Carolina.
Krystle: Liz, you nailed the internal dialogue that I have with myself every day. For me, it also has something to do with working from home. It seemed easier to celebrate an accomplishment when I worked onsite with a team of people. Win a pitch? Celebratory brews after work with the crew to congratulate each other for being awesome at life. Now I tend to plow through the to-dos, checking life Things off the list, without taking time to reflect on it all. You’re right, it’s got to be an oldest-child thing.
Fear Confessions is a series of essays by creatives who share personal stories about facing their fears. It’s a celebration of vulnerability.