Research on adult development tells us that our lives move in spurts: several years of relative stability and focus, then several years consumed with bursts of unrest. Here is a quick look at some of the common challenges of the early 30s.
You actually are settling down. Part of the challenge of this time comes from the fact that your life has actually settled. For many of us, the 20s were filled with tremendous changes – finishing college or some higher ed, deciding on some major or career path, venturing forth. If not doing more schooling, moving into jobs that may or may not become a possible career. Relationship-wise, either a lot of dating or even marriage. Regardless, lots of activity and anxiety. Now you are likely somewhat settled – in the marriage or the job/career. You have the time to catch your breath and take stock of where you are in your life.
Reflecting on your past. This is a time when you may find yourself reflecting on your childhood and wondering about where you’ve been and why you are here. What I often see in clients of this age is a critical view of their parents; some choose to break off contact with them because of past hurts –their rigidity and close-mindedness, their inability to understand how you felt as child or teen, how they seemed insensitive to what you are aware of now as traumatic moments, or your moments of overwhelming depression and sadness. You are now looking at the past through a new lens, which is part and parcel of assessing where you are now.
Your parents, from their side, often have no idea what you're talking about or why you are making such a fuss years later. Their reality and memory are different – they think that they were doing the best they could, that they were in fact being sensitive and absolutely doing a better job than their parents did. So they get defensive, which only seems to add fuel to your own fire and cements, at least for a while, your own view of your parents.
Looking at careers. The initial jobs, whatever they were, now can seem unsatisfying. There is no career path, the work is boring or too competitive. Part of your creativity or sense of purpose has been lost or pushed to the side of your life. Time to re-evaluate. Perhaps it's time for grad school in something new – law, web design, etc. You can’t imagine having to do what you’re doing now for…ever.
Partner crisis. For those who married in their 20s life has settled. But likely the seven-year itch has descended and with it the sense that there is a gap between the everyday life that you are living, with all its routines and rules, and who you are today. Here couples start fighting, move apart into parallel lives, or become children-centered. What most drew you to your partner is, perhaps, now gone, or drives you crazy. You want to break out – do more on your own, speak up and not just go along. It’s about individuating, being more of who you want to be. You’re rocking the boat and likely there's pushback.
And if you’ve gone through a severe break-up or divorce, you are now maybe feeling adrift, lonely. You may throw yourself into your career if that still is working for you, or into online dating hoping to find a better match. On good days it's a new chapter, on bad days a dark pit.
Babies, maybe. And if you’re a woman and childless, you are aware of closing doors. Time to get moving. But if you are alone or unsure about the stability of your relationship, this is a time of angst. Throw in your childhood stuff, the fear of turning out like your parents, and all this can be overwhelming.
A difficult time to say the least. What to do?
See it for what it is. A normal if unwieldy time perhaps for self-reflection and recalibration. It's not that you’ve not done anything wrong so much as that you need to reconcile who you have become with the life you’ve created. Time to take a deep breath, not panic, step way back and see what is going on, what your life is challenging you to do.
A good time to redefine your values and priorities. What is it that you need most now? Based on what you believe and have learned, what is most important for you to focus on now? What on a good day is the purpose of your life? (Don't be afraid to think big.) Realize, though you may feel trapped at times, that you are actually never trapped and it is a matter of realizing your choices, however limited they may seem right now.
Explore. Think grad school is a good idea? Check it out. Talk to people in different careers and find out what they like or don’t like about their jobs. Take the risk of speaking up rather than biting your tongue. Talk to your parents about your past, not to rant, but to gain a different perspective about the decisions they made and why. Bring creativity back into your life by picking up creative outlets that have been pushed to the side (music, art, dance, writing, etc), or by exploring new activities through lessons or volunteering.
Try seeing your life as one of discovery rather than one that you build. Not achieving a goal doesn’t mean failure but rather that there may be another road that you need to explore and take.
Consider some form of counseling or therapy. This is about having a safe place to sort out your thoughts, to have someone outside of you to challenge your thinking and your assumptions. Also a place to sort out problems – your relationship, your job, the baby. It need not be long-term, but something to kick-start your thinking and help you feel less alone.
These transition periods usually last 2-3 years. Try seeing this as an important transition in your ongoing evolution and authorship of your life.
Think of it as practice for when that next midlife one comes along.