My twenties are ruining my thirties
September 18, 2021 12:04 PM   Subscribe

I spent most of my late teens and twenties stuck at home, suffering from depression and severe social anxiety. Now I'm in my thirties and things are a lot better, but I'm spending all of my time ruminating about things that happened back then.

I also have a lot of jealousy towards people who had normal experiences in their twenties, including my three siblings who are all high achievers. I take meds, and I've tried CBT, which I find very difficult, and meditation which has never really worked for me. How can I stop obsessing about my teens and twenties and enjoy my thirties?
posted by Chenko to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I guess one option is to try and find something really meaningful to you, that aligns with your values, that you can throw yourself into, to be your thing for your thirties. Something that makes you feel like you’re in the right place, at the right time, doing the thing you should be doing. If your thirties feel “right” and worthwhile in some way, your attention can be more focussed on the present and more able to rest in the present without always straying back.

So - volunteering or working towards a cause you believe in - ideally probably something that engages you physically and/or socially, rather than a solitary, intellectual thing that leaves you trapped inside your head. Go and dig a community vegetable garden than gives produce to the local food bank and get to know the network of people connected with it; volunteer with a charity providing activities for the elderly or people with learning disabilities or befriending new immigrants to your locality or leading bike rides or shopping for the housebound or… you get the picture. Something that at the end of the day leaves you gratifyingly tired, with new people in your life, and the ability to sit back and think: “Well, my 20s were shit, but I didn’t let it ruin me - look what a great asset to the world I’ve become.”

I believe Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) focusses a lot on this kind of thing, improving your mental health by thinking about your values and building a life based on them. The Happiness Trap I think is the classic introductory/self-helpy text on ACT (bit of a disclaimer on that, in that I’ve not done it, but I think that’s the case).
posted by penguin pie at 12:32 PM on September 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I went through something like this in my mid-20s. I think we don't talk enough about this aspect of recovery - not only do you need to recover from depression, you need to recover from the experience of having had depression (like, imagine having battled cancer for years - even after going into remission, the emotional experience leaves a mark on you). It's important to give yourself the time and space to mourn the lost years. I would try a different modality than CBT, something where you can spend more time talking about what you've been through.
posted by airmail at 12:33 PM on September 18, 2021 [33 favorites]

Hi friend, you are me and I was you. This is going to sound like a glib response, but on top of all the therapy in the world and meds, what worked for me was to move someplace far away where no one knew old messier me to start a new phase in life. In tandem with this I started a new, much more fulfilling career. Is there someplace else you’ve always fantasized about living in? Go there!

If physical distance is not an option, really what it’s doing is cheating your way to emotional distance, so focus on that. Be grateful to your 20something disaster self; they still shepherded you through to who you are now.

CBT has never worked for me; I do much better with a more psychodynamic approach (the kind of therapy you see on tv; lots of talking and delving into past experiences and emotions). Definitely try a new therapist/therapy modality.

Mostly, don’t give up! There is another side, be patient with yourself as you head towards it.
posted by nancynickerson at 1:40 PM on September 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I think CBT is really useful for getting through today and tomorrow but it is not very good for the past or trauma or grief. It's not for processing, and it sounds like what you really need to do is process that period of your life and then come to some conclusions that make it easier to move forward.

I think the way to get what you need for this out of therapy is to be able to really pin that to a list of goals - a lot of therapists, if you just show up stuck and struggling and can only say "I need to feel less awful" until you get on top of the awfulness and can set more precise goals, you're going to get techniques for dealing with the contents of your head in the moment. They're not going to know you want or are ready for something else.

I do think you can do some of this by yourself by spending some time trying to journal the story of what that time was like, as a first pass focusing on describing how you felt in the moment, and then a second pass reviewing it in hindsight *with a focus on the narrative you're creating/telling yourself* (this may take multiple additional passes).

Because the way you feel about this today is a whole lot about the story you're telling yourself about it, which I suspect is that you could have been doing SO much more (because look at your brothers etc), wasted time, et cetera et cetera. But I would encourage you to think about how many people spend their 20s on all kinds of hustles that actually end up not being terribly meaningful to their 30s, whether that's pursuing an education-career arc they ultimately rethink in their late 20s or early 30s, people who got that house/car/family going and then got that divorce/apartment/single-parenting thing before the decade was done, people leaving academia after putting in a ton of time, people realizing high-stress jobs don't fulfill them like their family.

A lot of experiments in that decade do not work out as expected. LOTS of people hit their 30s feeling not fantastic about their 20s. LOTS of people just had to survive their 20s to learn the lessons they needed to thrive in their 30s, and so did you. Talk to yourself about those lessons, talk about how your path is your path and that's okay. If you find you're still really grieving something you feel you've lost after that process, you can take that really specific set of feelings to a therapist for pro guidance for resolving it.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:17 PM on September 18, 2021 [12 favorites]

Just want to affirm Lyn Never's point that most people do not have particularly successful 20s, and I swear all those 30 under 30 lists just exist to make people feel bad about themselves.

If you google "people who found their calling later in life" you will get a lot of hits - maybe spend some time reading about those stories and then, as has already been suggested, start to brainstorm what you future you might like to start working towards. Good luck.
posted by coffeecat at 3:02 PM on September 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I know this is going to sound cheesy as hell, and I can't believe I'm about to suggest this, but I think focusing on "self compassion" may help here.

What I mean is, when you find yourself ruminating about your twenties and how you were limited by your illness, try to see instead if you can feel compassion for yourself and for the ways that you were struggling. Try to focus on being proud of taking care of yourself.

THis is hard! It's probably going to feel super dumb at first. But I especially find if I can sort of cultivate some distance from myself, almost thinking of my younger self as a different person, then it helps. Use self talk like you would use with a friend not with yourself.

What would you say to a close friend who was struggling with depression? Or who was struggling with ruminations about not being good enough? Try coming up with some set phrases, and practice repeating them.

I literally put sticky note reminders to be kind to myself.

I'm still not good at it. But I'm getting a bit better! And now there are times when I can actually feel pride at everything I survived and how hard I worked to get better. And I can feel compassion for my past self and how hard things were and how deeply unhappy and traumatized I was.

This worked for me in ways that the standard CBT/meds stuff didn't. It's a long process. It won't solve everything, but I've found it works better than the typical thought challenges or whatever.

One other thing is to try a more ACT approach where you notice that you're having these thoughts, rather than getting invested in them. So notice that you're having them, label them as thoughts, but recognize that thoughts don't have inherent truth or values. they may be true or may not be true. This can help you get some distance from the painful thoughts and maybe stop ruminating so much.
posted by litera scripta manet at 3:14 PM on September 18, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: You know, what you are seeking is validation. Your parents or siblings, or even a therapist, cannot give you that. What you want is someone to tell you that what you experienced was real, and not deny it. I really understand that feeling. And I will validate you, even if no one else in your life will.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:36 PM on September 18, 2021 [5 favorites]

It's impossible to stop ruminating about a white elephant if your self-talk is "stop thinking about a white elephant". Maybe it's worth planning in advance what you're going to do instead of allowing yourself to ruminate. What do you want to think about and do, now that you're here? You can't change the past, so now's a great time to start thinking about the future instead.

As for "normal" in your twenties, trust me: there's nothing normal for anyone in their 20s these days. It's super easy to get caught up in other people's public personas without knowing a single thing about the struggles they face in private. Be careful about judging your complete experience against the slivers of experience you see from others.
posted by Aleyn at 7:48 PM on September 18, 2021

I'm spending all of my time ruminating about things that happened back then ... How can I stop obsessing about my teens and twenties and enjoy my thirties?

Main trick is learning to separate the fact of rumination from the content of rumination, and then treat the rumination itself, rather than what you're ruminating about, as the problem to be solved.

Rumination and anxiety are mutually reinforcing cognitive habits, so once you've got a handle on rumination you will most likely also experience much less anxiety generally.

In my thirties I used to ruminate a lot and learning to modify that was pretty much my first step out of orbit as an inner space cadet.

The model I used was to consider the parts of my brain responsible for implementing consciousness as an association engine: a thought occurs, which triggers an associated thought, which triggers an associated thought, and on and on and on it goes for as long as I'm not having to deal with anything external. In the light of this model, rumination is just a loop of associations, so all I should need to do in order to get rid of it is modify any of the associations in any given loop and it will break by itself.

So what I did was imagine, in as much detail as possible, myself as a cow resting at the base of a shady tree on a warm and sunny summer's day halfway up a grassy green hill. My nose is full of the scent of grass and earth and wildflowers, my ears are full of the gentle breeze in the leaves and the humming of bees in the blossom and the sound of my own teeth slowly and rhythmically chewing cud, and the grass is soft and warm beneath my belly. I am quite literally ruminating as the clouds drift by; there is nothing to think about and nothing to do but taste the cud and get it chewed nice and fine, and I feel completely and utterly content and at peace.

I worked on this thing for weeks, adding detail on detail on detail until I could just drop myself into it at a second's notice and remain fully immersed for minutes at a stretch, and I still rate it as one of the best pieces of VR work I've ever encountered despite the sketchy visuals (I have almost no internal eye except while dreaming). It's kind of a shame nobody else gets to appreciate it but me, but that's the thing about purely internal art: no critics :-)

Next part was learning to spot a ruminative thought loop so I could immediately re-link whatever piece of it was happening right then to Cow Hill instead of leaving the old loop-promoting association in place. Took a while to hone that skill, but even very early on I could tell that the method had promise, and it's been working beautifully for me for thirty years now. The thought "Ah! Rumination!" has now been so thoroughly associated with Cow Hill, and the experience of rumination so thoroughly associated with the noticing of it, that sometimes I just find myself up there chewing cud before I can even be sure what the trigger was. But I don't mind what the trigger was: it's lovely up there!

Obviously everybody's different and what works for some isn't going to work for others, but this is what worked and continues to work for me. I hope you find something useful in it.
posted by flabdablet at 8:27 PM on September 18, 2021 [10 favorites]

Imagine yourself in your 40s and then being mad about 'wasting' your 30s ruminating about your 20s. Work on doing your 40-something self a favor now by looking forward, not back.
posted by greta simone at 7:06 AM on September 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

This sort of happened to me - so I met a bunch of party friends in my 30s and we went to the bar all. The. Time. and had all the shenanigans I should have had in my 20s over a two year period and then suddenly we all settled down and we’re at each other’s weddings it was glorious and what I remember I remember fondly.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:36 PM on September 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

I understand where you're coming from and second the point that many of us don't have the best experience in our 20s. My 30s also didn't feel great for many years but now I'm almost 40 and life is pretty darn good! It's OK to grieve the things we feel we missed out on; it's also good to believe that eventually we'll feel more at peace with our past while enjoying our present. For me it took therapy (EMDR specifically) to deal with past trauma, work on accepting the role OCD has played in my life, recognizing that my past crap may have had no positives but I can have a good present, etc. I made big life changes and a move and that helped as well although I know it's not possible for many. For years I felt I had wasted much of my life, even if I could also acknowledge that I had done lots of cool stuff -- in part due to the challenges or at least in spite of them. I hope you can work on just accepting that right now feels crappy and the past is so painful AND that one day you can and will accept your past and enjoy your future! Things will work out for you, I really believe it. I'm so sorry you've had such a hard time for so long; it's painful and makes it hard to see the positive, for sure, but it can come!
posted by smorgasbord at 7:50 PM on September 22, 2021

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