I’ve been tremendously enjoying reading “The Good Life” by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz.
The book briefly touches on a few different adult development theories, which particularly caught my attention because they provide a beautiful framework to make sense of how I felt for many years, and something I hear all the time from my clients:
“I feel like I have it totally together on the outside, but on the inside things are very stressful and confusing.“
We can anchor this dilemma in the language of universal developmental milestones – core challenges we are all confronted with throughout life.
Depending on which theory you choose (I’m mixing and matching here), three of those key milestones center around identity, competence, and trust/closeness/support.
But reality often pans out differently than this ideal chronology.
Circumstances intervene, and in practice we might hop around that typical timeline, skipping some stages out of necessity and jumping ahead to others.
When I look through the lens of this framework, what I often hear from my clients is that they didn’t have a chance to build a solid footing in the domains of identity or trust/support. Perhaps more pressing material concerns meant there wasn’t enough breathing room to explore their identity, or support from others didn’t always feel reliably available.
Instead, they had to jump ahead and lean hard into competence to create a sense of worth, self, and safety for themselves. So they mastered the externals of adulting with unusual speed and intensity.
Fast forward to their 30s and beyond, and they find themselves knee deep in all the credentials, expectations, and trappings of adulthood, but still baffled when it comes to fundamental questions about trust and self that other people seem to have mastered seamlessly much earlier in life. It feels like an impressive house of cards built on a foundation of shifting sand.
Anchoring this painful and confusing experience in the language of universal developmental needs can bring a welcome sigh of relief. It also normalizes the reality that a LOT of us, through no fault of our own, are hopping around on nontraditional developmental chronologies and just doing our best along the way.
The fantastic news is that it is never too late to start looking at those questions about identity and trust/support/closeness – even if we had to skip over those chapters at the beginning of life. At any age, we can undertake the beautiful and fascinating exploration into who we truly are, and how we share that with others and receive in a loving and supportive way.
That exploration matters urgently, because that’s where all the meaning, purpose, and joy in life are hiding. At the end of the day, that sense of self and interpersonal connection are what all the competence is supposed to be in service of; they’re the only true reason to bother with checking all the boxes, racking up the achievements, and paying the bills in the first place.
If you’re interested in dipping a toe into these waters, I’d definitely recommend checking out the book. And if you’re ready to dive right into the deep end, let’s talk.