7 Misbeliefs About What it Means to Be Adult
Freeing Yourself from Myths About Being a Grown Up
Hello beloved readers,
You’re in for a treat today! Psychologist and anxiety expert Dr. Tamar Chansky has graciously agreed to write a guest post to answer a fundamental question I’ve asked myself for decades, and maybe you have, too.
The question: What does it actually mean to be a grownup?
I love her response, and I think you will, too.
LET’S DIVE IN, and HEAR FROM DR. TAMAR CHANSKY
Hello all! I’m excited to have the opportunity to do a guest post for the How to Live Newsletter.
Some of you may know me from Amanda’s “Tuesdays with Tamar” monthly Instagram Lives. I am the one who never updates Instagram, which leaves the wonderful Amanda Stern left to ad-lib without me, as I scramble to get online. Despite my apparent ongoing and intractable technical limitations, she has graciously not fired me. Thank you, Amanda. Love you.
What does it really mean to be an adult?
Amanda posed this question to me recently, and as you’ll see, I was ready with some answers—from my patients to my own life, this question has been on my mind.
Especially at this time.
This unprecedented moment of facing unhealed wounds and ongoing challenges in a world that keeps shaking our very foundations as we try desperately to—as is our nature—seek and see predictability, or reinvent a sense of safety that allows us to continue every day.
Raise your hand if you have felt very much like a child these past years wishing that someone would come along and say it was going to be OK.
I have to put my hand down just so I can type, but I’m right there. We are not going to feel OK a lot of the time. This reality flies in the face of a long-held myth of adulthood—that being an adult means generally having your sh!t together at all times.
That is a myth. The mother of all myths about adulthood.
In our individual lives and collectively over the last few years, we’ve seen how life can bring us to our knees. And that’s OK, because that is truly what it means to be an adult sometimes. We can be undone by life and then somehow wake up the next morning (or some morning thereafter) and get up and go.
See, we have already dispelled one myth.
I’ve heard this very refrain from patients of all ages: fledgling adults in their 20s, seasoned ones in their 50s and 60s, and even seniors in their 70s.
Each of them was feeling what anyone might in the course of life’s journey—utterly lost, achingly vulnerable, frightened, mortally embarrassed, profoundly overwhelmed, and desperately confused about how to move forward. And also ashamed and apologizing for having those very feelings because clearly, a real, competent, legitimate adult would simply not, ever, feel like that.
Their anxiety is not distinct from yours or mine.
These are universal experiences we face finding the will to scale the daunting wall of an ordinary day, or when are facing bigger decisions or simply the question of our existence.
As I said to one young person this week—anyone who stops and thinks about how we are alive may “freak out.” But with lots of practice over time, you can learn to regroup, reset, and with a big “Yes, AND” (Yes, life can feel scary AND that’s OK because there’s nothing I need to do about it right now) carry on.
Yet, somehow we think we aren’t supposed to do that. We aren’t supposed to feel lost, scared, need support, lonely, or all the things. That’s kid’s stuff. “Grow up!” our inner judge might say accusingly.
“How old are you?” we might hear in our mind.
New answer: I am exactly the right age I need to be.
As it turns out, one of the challenges of the human condition that is more easily fixable than others is removing the self-judgment we feel for reacting “wrong.” That’s a layer off the burdens we are already feeling that we can right now just lift off.
Judgment is painful and it’s a distraction from solving whatever lies beneath that judge-y surface.
So let’s get a few things straight:
1. It’s OK to feel NOT like an adult, whatever that means (we’ll explore below).
2. Being an adult is a dynamic thing—a fluid experience—not a continuous line, or a logical vector of maturity. I am an inveterate determined child at heart and “mature on demand, only” as my adult children know.
3. Adulthood is a construct. In fancy words: adulthood is an assigned meaning, a narrative, rules, beliefs, etc.
In un-fancy words:
adulthood is made up.
We can dismantle the unhelpful parts in a future post, and decide on some beneficial ways to define adulthood… for now, at least, let’s just say that we don’t have to feel like an adult to be one.
So, with that in mind, here are a few myths about what it means to be an adult.
Scroll through and find the assumptions where you get stuck and set yourself (and your inner child) free!
Note that when you read the titles you might think the myths sound absurd, but if you think back over your lived experience, notice how real they feel.
Adults don’t feel rejected, they know their worth at all times
When we are passed over for a job, a grant, a part, or a relationship, the script we wish to read from goes something like this:
“They aren’t rejecting me, it’s just not the right match!”
Let’s call this the “very mature script.” The ability to separate who you are from other people’s actions helps us know that rejection is not a reflection of our worth as a person.
Who among us picks up that script first?
No hands up on that.
Instead, we go through misery, self-doubt, loathing, and recrimination.
Eventually (hopefully) we catch glimpses of our separateness and even our magnificence, but it is definitely not an express route.
Real-life emotional processing means retreading through those emotional switchbacks—rejection followed by redemption, over and over as we pull ourselves and our self-esteem out of the muck.
So, if you are feeling bad about rejection, you just haven’t gotten to the right (accurate) script yet.
Adults are brave, and that means they shouldn’t feel scared (Or need anyone to help them if they are)
You may know about those MRI studies which show that simply holding hands with someone during a medical procedure reduces your perception of pain.
How about that for starters?
No matter what age we are, we are wired to down-regulate with another being—a person, a pet, and even a plant. I recently heard trauma guru and Somatic Experiencing developer, Peter Levine, tell a story about the power of touch when we are scared.
He was crossing the street and was hit by a car speeding through a light.
Flown up in the air he landed hard on the ground and couldn’t move. He was terrified. As a physician, he knew what the consequences could be. A woman came over to him and did a brilliant thing. She said, “I’m a doctor. How can I help you?” Equally brilliant, Peter Levine replied—”Please stay with me and hold my hand.”
Which she did.
The whole time.
When the paramedics arrived and put Peter in the ambulance and took his vitals, the EMT said—"I’m having trouble with my equipment, let me do this again.” Peter asked what the problem was: the EMT replied that Peter’s heart rate and pulse were normal.
This would never happen in a trauma situation.
Peter took the opportunity to in his words “proselytize” about the ways in which we can help each other down-regulate, through the reassurance of touch, a calming voice, and a calming presence.
This is how we are built.
All of us.
We never outgrow it.
That’s not a thing.
Now of course that is a dramatic story of extreme fear but in any true life-threatening or felt life-threatening event—we bring the same wiring either way. In our everyday experiences when thinking about climate change, the pandemic, gun violence, our scared part needs comforting.
The fact is, adults are afraid just like kids.
What we usually see, even when someone is struggling, is an edited reel of resilience—cherry-picked frames of the “cleaned-up moments”. There is no question that it is brave to show even the cleaned-up version of our vulnerability, but that is very different from the behind-closed-doors, unvarnished version of our lives.
In that version, even those we consider resilient people can’t get out of bed some days. They leave dishes in the sink. They don’t open mail. All of it.
“Fuck everything!” our resilient friend says. “I give up. I hate everything. I’m staying in bed.”
But the story of resilience doesn’t end with these feelings. When we share our vulnerable, raw, and messy feelings, our toxic positive culture deals us a hand of “resiliency shame.”
Honoring our feelings, and seeing things for what they are without having to defend ourselves is step one.
Step two is equally important!
Use our truth as the springboard for action: explore the places that we are frightened to feel and see what’s there; get support, accept, and strategize.
Let’s be honest: low points are part of the human experience, and we can save ourselves from going even lower from the shame we feel for being “weak.” The sooner we do this, the sooner we’ll find our strength.
Adults shouldn’t feel upset, cry, or need support.
I wrote a post a while back, deep in the middle of this ongoing pandemic, about how to heal our broken hearts.
It was the most widely read post I’ve written in my entire career.
One of the stories I shared I learned from attending an online event, where Sharon Salzberg, the beloved Buddhist meditation teacher who brought lovingkindness meditation practice to the western world, told a story about her early days inviting a Buddhist monk to her then newly founded meditation center in Barre, Massachusetts.
She shared how a friend of hers had just passed away and she was trying hard to not be “attached” to grieving by crying too much and missing what she was supposed to be learning during the monk’s stay.
Then, in one of her meetings with the monk, he asked her if she was crying about her friend in her meditation. Thinking it the “right” answer she said— “not very much.” To her surprise, the monk responded: “No, no you must cry your heart out. Every time. That is how you get the greatest release.”
That wisdom, people, is a keeper.
There is no cure for crying. No treatment. Crying is the cure*.
An asterisk here is that as adults we have so trained ourselves not to cry that sometimes even if we want to, the tears don’t come.
That’s why in that post, I talk about the Rube Goldberg machine, we need something to start us off, and then all (or some) of the chutes and ladders of our emotional pathways open up.
Need a starter?
Maybe you have that go-to playlist of songs that make you cry (if not, Amanda made one), that you actually try to avoid for that reason, or for Ted Lasso fans, remember that incredible hug between Roy Kent and Jamie Tart?
Adults are Independent. And that means never relying on others….
“Dependency is a ruined idea,” so writes my favorite psychologist of all time, the late Dr. Dan Wile in his book, After the Honeymoon. Wile suggests that “Independence is seen as good, dependence is seen as bad,” end of the story.
But we know that we need to depend on each other, in a zillion different ways—from the very global interconnectedness of our world, down to the personal, we need contact to survive and thrive.
I’ve had many patients get into hard situations at work, school, and in general life scenarios by feeling that it would be wrong to ask for help. Time to salvage the dependency idea says Wile but in a “smart” or “skilled” way.
Ask for help without apology; ask for help not because you are admitting deficiency, but simply because you—the best judge of your situation— know you need something from someone else. The paradox is that being able to ask for help doesn’t define us or diminish us, it actually keeps us independent and not stuck; it helps us feel more secure and learn things we don’t know. We don’t have to hide or sneak the help we need in unassertive ways; we can feel whole and entitled to ask for help, and that gives us a stronger sense of ourselves and our stance in life.
Thank you, Dan Wile, for helping a species become more independent by talking about dependence.
Adults never feel lost or lose hope. That’s kid’s stuff.
One of my favorite quotes is from George Eliot.
Well, I am not a child, but I often think that my hope is stuck on the ground and has no lift-off. Maybe it will come, but it’s not like the plane is there, a tank full, ready to transport you at a moment’s notice. Well maybe it is there, but we don’t notice it for a long time… we forget everything we’ve learned (there isn’t time to remember!) about how feelings are not facts, feelings are temporary, and they pass.
Hope is a place we can navigate to, but it’s not a natural progression from going in circles in hopelessness-land. It’s across the bridge.
There’s a fine point here, feeling lost feels lost because we think we are nowhere or not where we are supposed to be.
Being able to articulate “I am lost” is the beginning of our well-being.
Words are coordinates. Legitimate ones: Lost is a place—a place where we temporarily land. Especially in hard times. A place where we can find ourselves. We can feel more connected with ourselves rather than lose ourselves in a jumble of despair and judgments about feeling despair. Then we can feel compassion for ourselves instead of judgment. And when that happens, we are freer to see hopefulness, sitting right beside our hopelessness.
Adults don’t have tantrums.
Truth is, nobody has tantrums, not even kids. When we look at it with compassion rather than judgment, we see emotional overload and we all experience it.
From the moment we are born—with the first life-affirming cry from a baby, we begin the life-long arc in our quest to regulate our emotions.
Our nervous system precepts are to detect threats. The social engagement system develops as babies, and then we learn to downregulate—through interacting with another regulated nervous system (and if we don’t have a regulated parent or caregiver, well, we don’t learn to down-regulate too well).
We have no idea when we are young that we can feel better even without the soothing of another’s support. As babies, the gist is am I safe or not? As adults—you guessed it, it’s still the same question but what we base our assessment of safety on is not simply basic safety needs.
Frustration enters the picture—things don’t happen as we expect, people let us down, we let us down, and disappointments plunge us. Over time we learn to tamp down the amplitude of those episodes of frustration, anger, or melting down with stress overload, or even sensory overload. There is that pivot point, that inner inflection point when we kind of recognize these thinking traps (identified by Albert Ellis):
I must do well and win the approval of others
Others should act rationally or else there should be consequences
Life should be easy without discomfort or inconvenience
It’s not that adults never get upset or have outbursts—we accept what we’ve done, apologize for any hurtful things we said, and see that the unbearable is manageable after all. Losing a tennis match, being passed over for a job, your refrigerator breaking down, and right-sizing the situation is something we learn to do. For our own sake.
The hijack into despair or derailment is a no-fault thing, but we can, for our own sakes, learn how to right-size the situation, see it as temporary, or terrible—just what is. We can pivot to living life with this reality—the “Yes, this happened, and it’s OK I can move forward even with this…”
Regulating yourself doesn’t mean that what happened wasn’t terrible or frustrating or negates the significance. Regulating yourself is for your own sake so you can function.
Adults (should) know everything. They never don’t know something. And if God forbid, they don’t know, adults should not let that be known.
Art for How to Live by Edwina White
“I don’t know,” are three little words that take up such little space in the dictionary, yet there seems to be no room for them in our interactions with each other—whether in business, education, or relationships.
While graduation speeches from luminaries hail the merits of “failure” writ large as an opportunity to learn and grow, it seems that the same rules don’t apply to the “writ small”, in other words, admitting you don’t know something.
It should be at least considered acceptable to “fail” to have the answers or know what someone is talking about… The reason why I think speeches about failure became so popular is the dual recognitions that a) failure happens all the time even with the pros, and b) learning from what we don’t know or what went wrong is how innovation happens and we need to keep innovating in order to survive.
To succeed is to innovate, and to innovate requires safety, to be safe we need to be able to say when we don’t know something, or when we need something. It is hard to be the lone wolf saying these things if you are in a culture at your job, your community, your relationship, or your family, that doesn’t get this yet—but sometimes if you can feel empowered to be that lone wolf, speak up, you will find other wolves to join you.
If we make more room for the array of emotional expressions—maybe that will allow us all to become better adults together.
Next time you find yourself in the middle of one of these experiences where you are feeling child-ish, I hope you can wrap yourself up in the comfort of knowing that you aren’t wrong, childish, off-track, or hopeless.
You are human, unfinished, a being in process, and millions of people need to remember the same thing at just about this very moment on this spinning top called earth.
©2023 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. For more ideas like these please come spend some time with me here.
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