Thinking about the future and aging can bring up a lot for people. Sometimes it's magical thinking. Sometimes it can feel catastrophic. In reality, it might not be what you thought it was because- *surprise, surprise*- you probably can't predict the future.
The Magical Age:
Remember being little and saying to yourself that you were going to have done X by Y age? I definitely thought that by the age of 25, I was going to have graduated from college, been established in my career, married, and started a family. I mean, in elementary school, 25 is old which is hilarious now. What a surprise when I hit 25 and had graduated college but that was about it... I had just figured out that I wanted to be a therapist and was starting grad school. (And with that, I'm pretty fortunate. Many might not figure out their career paths by that time.) I was far from being established in it. I was literally just starting. I had just moved into a family friend's home which wasn't my ideal living situation but it fit my budget at the time. I was in a relationship that was unhealthy. We just weren't a good fit although I still think he's a great person. We definitely weren't getting married though. And the closest thing I had to starting my own family was my dog (who actually was very much my family).
So when I say I was disappointed, it might very well be an understatement. And I'm not alone. Many people feel that way because they think at some magical age, everything will be figured out. Nothing wrong with setting goals and I encourage people to use the SMART goal method. But we also need to be realistic. A good portion of those milestones were things that I couldn't control at all.
More than that, I was missing a lot of amazing experiences being focused on what I hoped was to come. That's what tends to happen when you're not present and you keep telling yourself that it will all come together and be amazing once you reach that age benchmark and achieve these specific things. But there's a lot to be grateful for now. I'll talk about that more in just one sec.
The Dreaded Age:
I also did this. It's very similar to the magical age but rather than looking forward to it and believing your life will come together on that special birth year, you're having a lot of anxious and negative thoughts about what will happen at that time if it doesn't look just right. My dreaded age was 38. (Spoiler- I'm older than 38.) And there were a couple other ages along the way that marked events that "should" happen in order to be on track for my life not falling apart at 38.
I spent quite a few hours in therapy and processing on my own what I was going to do if this didn't happen. If I didn't find my husband. If I didn't have a child. If I wasn't high enough on my career ladder. Personally, some of these things did work out for me although there was no way of me knowing that at the time when I was stressing about it. But there were some that didn't. And some aspects that I'm still working on. (Shout out to my therapist!)
So with that being said, here is what I (older, hopefully wiser, therapist Marcelle) would tell my younger self about how to work through these cognitive distortions.
Practice mindfulness exercises to work on being present. Pair this also with gratitude exercises because I believe that you probably have some things to be thankful for right now. Still not sure how to start? Write down 3 things that you're grateful for in your journal daily. They don't have to be monumental things but it's a helpful reminder that your life is currently happening. It doesn't start in the future.
Challenge your thoughts about what will happen at that magical or catastrophic age. It also helps to write this down so you don't get caught up ruminating on part of it or you don't forget the really great point you made to yourself just a second ago. What happens if this doesn't happen? What things will still be there that will still be pretty cool? Are there other things that you would like to also focus on?
Talk to yourself like you would your friend. Most of us don't tell our friends that their life will be over if certain things don't happen. We can be pretty optimistic when it's about someone else. So what would you say to them? We also may remind our friend that they're also pretty awesome now. What things should they remember about now or who they currently are? (They meaning you lol.)
Go to therapy. Yep, you knew it was coming. But that's because therapy can be helpful for some. It helps to have someone teach us techniques to challenge our thinking, to check us as we speak negatively to ourselves, and help us rethink our future to include all of the amazing possibilities.
And that is what your future actually is- many amazing possibilities with some potential detours.