This question arose in a recent therapy session when a thirty-something client was sitting in my office. We were discussing the regressed feelings she sometimes had, even though she had become adept at ‘adulting’. She held a responsible job, had a stable, happy marriage, and was raising two wonderful children. She could examine her life and sigh contentedly and, by most people’s standards, she had no overt reason for feelings of anxiety and depression. I explained that they are not mutually exclusive. It is quite possible to appear to have it all together on the surface and still have roiling discontent beneath the waves.
She sometimes felt she was treading water and not well. It harkened back to adolescent angst that appeared when she felt less than confident and competent. She knew with absolute certainty on good days that she was not that awkward teen. On challenging days, she was just as sure that she was back in high school, wondering how anyone could like her.
I told her, as I have any client who expresses similar feelings, that there is no one, regardless of how confident they seem, who doesn’t harbor self-doubt.
I asked her to imagine traversing the hallways in her school and that she could see thought bubbles above the heads of the others who were hurrying to get to class before the bell rang. What did she reckon would be contained within them? We laughed as we agreed that it was pretty darn likely that they had the same chatter going on in their minds about worthiness, appearance, academic performance, parents, career possibilities, romance, social interaction, or lack thereof. It goes to show that no one is immune to the active inner critic that longs for attention and will do whatever it takes to get it.
I also remind my clients that even the seemingly socially adept struggle at times. Their dilemma is the polar opposite, since achieving high status, they may feel pressure to maintain that lofty position. I remind them that pedestals are for statues and not people since it is so easy to get knocked off.
The Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen is the perfect reflection of what teens experience as they attempt to traverse the oft times treacherous territory. The song “Waving Through A Window“ expresses the distance and isolation sometimes felt and the piece called “You Will Be Found“ provides reassurance that even though we might be convinced we are not enough, we are never truly alone.
When I was a teen, I questioned my own footing. There were times when I was sure I fit into the puzzle of high school life and others when I seemed like a square peg in a round hole. Hard to imagine when I had friends, activities — swim team, Hebrew school and volunteering among them — and the phone was ringing often with invitations to hang out. In retrospect, I realize I worried too much about what others thought of me. Even now, at 60, I still check in and ask how much of what I do is influenced by what I think people expect of me and how much is internally driven.
A story that speaks to this comes from the wit and wisdom of Wavy Gravy, who was the emcee at Woodstock. His persona is that of a clown. He coined the phrase, “We are all Bozos on the bus.” I share it often with clients and students of all ages who fear that they will never be enough, have enough or do enough. They believe that there is a cool kid’s table (or bus) where everyone else but them gets to sit. These folks have more money, get better grades, wear more stylish clothes, are more popular, smarter, more talented, thinner, more attractive, more adept at whatever it is to which they aspire. The truth is, according to Wavy, these folks are Bozos in drag whose masks slip at times to reveal the vulnerable being beneath them. When I speak about it, I encourage them to fully embrace their Bozo-hood. Be wildly weird, uniquely themselves. They laugh at this and nod knowingly since they are acutely aware that their therapist embodies this herself.
Another topic that inevitably comes up when someone is feeling inadequate is “I’m not enough, and will never reach the level of proficiency that I desire, so why even try?” It is then that I remind them of how much they have achieved throughout their lives. Each of us is born with certain talents and gifts that we need to polish. Some of us have passions but may lack the skill to follow them naturally. That’s when cultivating our abilities by practice is necessary. The first time we do anything, we may feel clumsy and inept. We are always better at something the more we engage in it. It is also why I encourage my clients to put into active practice what we talk about in my office, since they don’t live here. I joke that only I live in my office.
I invite you to have a conversation with your adolescent self and perhaps write a letter to that young person who had one foot in childhood and the other stretching toward adulthood. What wisdom would you impart from your adult perspective? How would you reassure them that you made it across the threshold? What accomplishments do you want to applaud yourself for and what holes did you climb out of or avoid altogether? What stories do you want to rescript? What can you learn from the one who may have braved high school, learned to drive, achieved a diploma or GED, and went on to either attend college or enter the workforce? Either way the conversation goes, I encourage you to be kind and compassionate to the work in progress that you are since you entered the adult world.