No matter how much we try to control our timelines, life is unpredictable. As adults, we know this—yet, oftentimes, we choose to cling on to this age-old idea that there’s somehow a “right” time to achieve our goals. We believe that if we plan it out just so, we’ll be able to find love, get married, have a child, buy a house, and excel in our career within an anticipated timeframe.

Society tells us that if we don’t check these boxes by age 30, we’re behind. And when unpredictability steps in (hiiii, COVID-19), and that timeline changes, we’re left with anxiety, guilt, and dread about how we’ll get it all done.

A global pandemic is not the kind of thing you can plan for, but it certainly makes envisioning a carefully planned future more difficult.

Before you beat yourself up for being a planner: humans naturally seek purpose and meaning in life. When we have milestones to look forward to, they become markers that tend to add meaning and a tempo to life. Without important milestones, life could become a blur of unimportant or ordinary occurrences.

Our expectations don’t always meet our reality, yet these self-imposed timelines remain rigid in our brains. If we don’t achieve them according to our own or others’ expectations, stress and anxiety can arise. When this occurs, the milestone can turn from a positive marker or goal into a source of negativity and distress.

If these goals are perceived as aspiration, things you genuinely want to achieve because you truly desire them (and do not view them as a requirement in life), you’ll be positively motivated to achieve them. However, if those goals start to be viewed as a measure of self-worth, your motivation to achieve it will be distress-driven.

When life doesn’t go as planned, we often berate and negatively judge ourselves for the lack of achievement. The resulting feelings can be of inadequacy, depression, guilt, anger, or even resentfulness.

The worst thing we do when things don’t go according to plan is to think, ‘There must be something wrong with me.’ That’s when the anxiety and self-doubt set in, which are both detrimental to our confidence and mental well-being.

If you’re feeling anxious about the timeline you’ve set for yourself, take a good look at where that motivation comes from. Is it self-imposed pressure? Are your friends or family placing stress on you? Is there an idea that society will judge you if you don’t hit a certain milestone?

Whenever we’re living our lives to get some sort of external validation, we’re going to set ourselves up for anxiety.

This isn’t shocking, considering that a quick scroll through social media will bring up dozens of photos of new engagements, weddings, babies, and career advancements from friends and acquaintances that can quickly make us question ourselves and our achievements. The cycle of self-doubt is easy to get caught up in, especially if we’re not willing to recognize why we’re putting these parameters for our lives in place.
Insecure thoughts about what it will mean if these boxes are not checked prevent us from making these important, potentially life-changing decisions with a clear mind.

The emotionally healthy perspective is to set goals based on the clarity of what you want versus what you should or have to achieve and then work toward them. If they’re not achieved “on time” (or at all), recognize that the only thing that has happened is that you didn’t reach that goal. And that’s it.

Instead of trying to control things that are often out of your control (an approach that will only make you feel helpless), reframe these ideas internally and take a good look at what they mean to you.

For instance, why are you placing pressure on your partner to propose? Is it because that is something you genuinely want, or is it because it’s been three years and everyone is asking when it’s going to happen?

You can use these steps to reframe your thoughts about life’s timelines:

  1. Acknowledge that the anxiety is there. It’s empowering to take your deepest feelings into account. Once you know that you may be struggling with anxiety around these issues, you’ll be in a better place to tackle them.
  2. Ask yourself, “If this happens, then what?” and recognize the insecure thoughts that may arise. You may think “If I’m not in a serious relationship by the time I’m 30, it’s because I’m not worthy of love.”
    It is important to pay attention to the ways you might be talking down to yourself, and then ask yourself: “How is this a productive thought?”
  3. Get comfortable with the gray area. Not everything in life needs to be so black and white. An all-or-nothing mindset is a recipe for disaster. Instead, strive to be more comfortable in the gray area. You may want to hit those checkpoints or milestones, but you don’t necessarily have to place a timeline on them. Find a balance between what you want and what you need.
  4. Talk to yourself like you’re advising a friend. We’re often much gentler with our friends than we are with ourselves, so take some of those encouraging words and give them to yourself. If a friend came to you with a concern about not meeting her expectations for life by a certain age, you’d likely be kind and encouraging, focusing on the goals she has achieved and telling her not to be so hard on herself. Lots of things can happen that may disrupt your goals and the timelines you envisioned for them, but at the end of the day, you deserve to be a little kinder to yourself.

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