Stock-taking at almost 30.
June 28, 2017 12:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm turning 29 in two days. When I was a kid, I imagined 29 a lot differently than it turned out. It seems trite, but I think a little stock-taking is in order and I hope your collective brilliance would help me out! More below.

I'm single, after an emotionally draining and bruising relationship that brought out the absolute worst of both of us terminated last year. It took us a few more months to go no contact. When people around me have started settling down, I seem to have zero interest in putting myself out there again, it was too hard the last time. I was sexually abused as a child (age 3-6)for years and I don't think I ever fully recovered, thus, I continue to approach intimacy with something akin to terror. (hence the anon) My parents and I have a great relationship on the surface, but we never talk about the toll of their insanely high expectations from me (one of my siblings screwed up massively when I was a teenager, and all the disappointment and rage and unfulfilled expectations landed squarely on my back at an age when I had neither the wisdom nor the resources to deal), and now they're pressuring me into 'settling down' because they want to see me married before they shuffle off the mortal coil. I have fairly severe health issues that I hold at bay with more grit than healthcare (as a child, it got ingrained into me that being sick at a relatively young age is shameful, somehow). I've shifted bases for education and then work over twelve times, which never let me build a support system in any city that I've been in. I've lived by myself for over four years now, and that's unlikely to change in the near future. My last job was terrible, leaving a legacy of anxiety issues that can sometimes get debilitating.
I have a few good friends. I have a really great job that challenges me and makes me happy most days. I have hobbies and I laugh/read/travel a lot. But the feeling of vague emptiness comes and goes and on many days, it can be absolutely crippling. I'm from Southeast Asia, and I'm a woman. Perhaps you could share what helped you negotiate your late twenties/early thirties and tackle your personal demons, and I can adapt some of those strategies to feel like less of a failure than I do, outward success notwithstanding. I want to be able to find someone who thinks I can be loved. I want to be healthier. I want to be happier. I want to be less consumed by regret.
Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I think the most important thing, in taking stock, is to identify what it is that you, personally, value and want -- that tends, in my experience, to be a more useful question to start with than the question of what you currently have. What you want is not a list of achievements that would make your parents finally give you that gold star, but a life that is rich in the things that you value. And you can't have that until you are really sure you know which things you do value, and which things you don't care about or want to actively avoid. This task of figuring out what actually personally matters to us seems -- in my limited experience, looking around at my friends and myself -- to be the late twenties/early thirties job for a lot of us, especially those of us from South Asian cultures. How to understand what I want, and admire, and desire, and don't care about, and actively dislike, apart from the expectations of parents and community and teachers? What can I do to pursue what I want, once I know what it is?

If that resonates with you, I think the first task to work through, possibly with a therapist, is to disentangle your hopes, fears and beliefs about yourself from the beliefs and hopes and fears you had as a small child trying to survive. What do you care about now? If you set aside your parents' wish that you settle down, for example, do you actually want to marry and/or have children? Why? What does it feel like when you imagine a future like that? What's good about it? What elements in it make you feel ambivalent? If you run the same exercise with with your job, and your finances, and other elements of your life, I think it can be helpful in clearing your head and getting rid of a lot of the fear and shame that surrounds the hopeless, useless, no-win question "have I stopped being a failure yet?" Once you drop the language of success and failure and the hope of satisfying everyone else's desires for and from you, you could then ask the sensible question: "what can I do today that would align my life with my values, and help to fill it with things and experiences that I truly believe are good?"
posted by Aravis76 at 1:31 AM on June 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Imagine your parents pass away peacefully tomorrow and after an appropriate amount of grieving, the weight of their expectations no longer lie on your shoulders. You're free. To do whatever you want without judgement. What would you do and how would you live your life? Chances are, that's where your true happiness lies.
posted by Jubey at 3:51 AM on June 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

well, stock MeFi answer says, "therapy," and I do think that will be useful for you. Up to you whether you would want to tackle your childhood abuse, or just develop strategies for dealing with your parents or your health issues in a way that is safer and less anxiety-provoking for you.

The thing is, setting aside your unique challenges (and I do not mean to discount the pain and difficulty and anxiety of them! but just setting them aside for a moment) I do want to say that you are also extremely normal.

Our culture holds "30" out there as some kind of magic number where Everything Becomes Fine and Good, but honestly at 29 I think most of us are a giant mess. We believe that certain things will save us from emptiness permanently, but the emptiness is a *part* of being human; it will never go away completely, we must learn to engage it. Around 30 is when we stop being able to distract ourselves quite so thoroughly from it because we usually do have the whole job and hobbies thing sorted, so we're not as consumed with just survival.

For me, I did do a bit of therapy and a stint on meds (because I had anxiety and depression that needed a bit of a kick in the butt before regular stuff like exercise and CBT and whatnot could work). I started to face a lot of things that I was doing in an unhealthy way or for unhealthy reasons, which meant acknowledging that I hadn't been a very good person all the time. I had to do some grieving that I wasn't doing. Like Aravis76 says above, I had to learn to separate out what I actually wanted and loved from what I thought I wanted, or felt I should want.

The key realization though was that sometimes I will feel sad, empty, or failing. It can't be chased away forever. But it's okay; the feeling is not a fact.

Again, therapy is a great way to get started with this, but it's work you can do on your own if you want.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:16 AM on June 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm twice your age (58) and my mom is already gone and my dad and his wife are in their early 80s. I'm guessing your parents are younger than that? So I would be tempted, if your parents pull a "we want to be grandparents before we die" attack on you, you might counterattack (lovingly) with "Don't say that, mama (about death). You are still so young and lovely." (Obviously phrase it a way that works for you, but relentless flattery can sometimes derail an attack, especially if it is grounded in real positive feelings.)
posted by puddledork at 8:03 AM on June 28, 2017

I have had something of a similar experience as you: Immigrant parents (latin america) with high expectations, early childhood sexual abuse, a sibling screw-up whose screw-ups screwed up things for me, and a demanding mother who put enormous pressure (and guilt trips) me for not living my life the way she wanted for me (including wanting me to marry someone she liked and badmouthing any partner of mine she didn't like). I also decided to go to law school at age 29, which was a little terrifying, because I felt like I was so old to start and I was going to be sooooo old when I finished.

It took me some time to get it myself, but I've learned it's really important not to let some arbitrary age number determine how you feel about yourself or where you are in life. One of the biggest things that got me over the hump -- and I obviously can't recommend this! -- is when my brother died at age 50 from cancer, without being able to see his kids graduate from high school or do any number of things he had planned to do. That was a devastating period in my life but the biggest thing I got out of it was a commitment to really focus on today, and constantly reevaluating whether *I'm* happy with my life -- me, not anyone else. Fortunately, you don't have to have a tragedy in your life to refocus yourself; just maybe when you start to feel unfulfilled despite outward success, spend some time imagining worst-case scenarios -- if it all fell apart tomorrow, would you feel satisfied about where you are? If yes, great! If not, then consider taking whatever leap you need to take to get there -- changing jobs, changing locations, meeting new people, taking on a new hobby/activity, whatever.

Regret is a hard thing to navigate, but for me what was helpful was shifting my focus to my own happiness and away from outward/external expectations. Don't get me wrong, I still had/have my moments when I look at my peers and see what I don't have -- a house, a steady income, any retirement savings (I'm 45 now) -- and get a little panicky or second guess myself, but then I also see some of my peers who've gone through painful divorces or are well-off but miserable or unhealthy because they stuck with a job they hated forever. I think, based on what you've said, if you have a good job and good friends and travel, etc., you're doing pretty good. Regarding feeling loneliness and/or emptiness, I do understand that, and I think the best approach there is to always be "putting yourself out there", as they say. Not just on the dating scene, so to speak, but keeping yourself involved in activities that expose you to a wide social circle, is the best way to continue to create new relationships and potentially find that person who is right for you, too.

I really wish the best for you. We human beings, especially those of us living in developed countries in conditions of stability and peace, can spend our lives learning and changing, and we really do have an infinite potential to reinvent ourselves. Embrace that! :)
posted by leticia at 11:37 AM on June 28, 2017

Go you for addressing this at such a young age! I was a bit older when I finally got myself to therapy and started taking stock of what I, myself, wanted for my life. 10 years (probably 5 in therapy) on and my life is so, so much better for it. You're a professional - go see a professional whose whole training is in helping smart people like you live their lives healthily. If the first one doesn't work for you, seek a different one (I did). I started with my primary care doctor, by Psychology Today's search tool might help you find someone who matches your needs.
posted by ldthomps at 12:52 PM on June 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Astrologers say that *everybody* goes through their first "Saturn Return" at about your age. This usually ends up feeling exactly like what you are describing--sort of a "quarter life crisis."

At your age, it really hit me that I wasn't going to live forever, I wouldn't actually have time to get everything done that I want to get done, and I'd have to make some tough decisions about which dreams I'd want to pursue. I am telling you this to let you know that what you are experiencing is completely typical for someone your age.

When I was going through my late 20s crisis, what helped a lot was meditation, yoga, therapy (particularly DBT), exercise, making art. I have always been spiritually inclined, but I suddenly took a real interest in religion and I have gotten a lot out of my explorations in that realm. Like you, I was abused as a child and I have a difficult relationship with my parents. My father's health was failing and I seriously contemplated if I should be one of his caregivers in his old age (ultimately I decided against it).

In short, I hope you will be gentle with yourself at this time. I think you are doing the right things by trying to ask these questions, instead of avoiding these tough existential questions. Life is not just about the day to day stuff, sometimes we are called to dig deeper. Sometimes society seems so fast-paced and materialistic; it can be easy to judge the type of work you are doing as frivolous, but it is actually crucial. So I will leave you with a quote by Rilke which I think is relevant: "Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."
posted by shalom at 4:36 PM on June 28, 2017

You might find reading Who Cares What You Are Supposed to Do? a thought provoking way to think about how to define what you really want from your own life and strength to push back against other people's expectations. It's not just your parents, there are a lot of social pressures about what you are supposed to be accomplishing at your age. Recognizing that meeting ALL of them is simply impossible can help free you up to figure out what really matters to you.
posted by metahawk at 11:35 AM on June 29, 2017

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