A Therapist Explains What To Do When You Feel Like You Will Never Get The Hang Of 'Adulting'

Adulthood isn't necessarily meant to feel like a natural transition, even though it is.

By Jourdan Travers, LCSW | July 29, 2023

Many people come to therapy wishing they could turn back time to when they were young and carefree. They may say things like:

  • "My friends are all settling into careers and relationships, while I still feel stuck in my younger years."
  • "Ever since I graduated college, I've been feeling lost. It's like I was only good at being a student, and now I don't know how to handle the complexities of the real world."
  • "As a stay-at-home parent, I'm often overwhelmed by the bills and responsibilities and wish I could go back to the blissful days of my youth."

We all go through varying degrees of what I like to call "age inertia," where the establishment of new life roles sparks a desire to hold on to simpler times with more familiar life roles.

I see this most often with young 20-somethings. Let's look at it from their perspective.

Until recently, these individuals likely had certain expectations they had to meet. Whether these expectations were set by their parents, their university or by society, there used to be clarity over the "correct" course of action to take (whether or not they agreed with it). This clarity is now replaced by the ambiguity of adulthood. They may look to their peers for answers, only to be left with the feeling that the transition is coming easy to everyone but them.

If you frequently feel nervous about your transition to adulthood, chances are that you may be interpreting this ambiguity as a wholly negative experience, which is where a major part of the problem lies. In fact, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that as children grow older, they begin to interpret ambiguous situations as negative experiences, which has a positive correlation with increased anxiety.

So, what are some ways of reframing this ambiguity to make the most of it as you transition into a real adult with real-world responsibilities?

1. Fall In Love With The Concept Of Anti-Perfectionism

It's possible to attain a perfect score on a test or examination, and to be a straight-A student throughout your career as a student. But the sooner you learn that the idea of perfection is flawed, the better poised you are to take on the challenges of adulthood, where doing a task "well enough" is enough.

Think about a situation where you're trying to prepare a homemade dinner for friends. With the constraints of time, skill and budget, it's often not realistic to prepare a five-course meal. Instead, you could focus on making a simple but delicious one-pot dish that satisfies your guests. It may not be "perfect" in a five-star dining sense, but it's good enough to achieve the goal of the evening, which is to enjoy a meal and the company of friends.

Science tells us that the pursuit of perfection can lead to two disastrous outcomes:

  1. It can make you depressed, which can make life seem more challenging than it is. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that perfectionists are far more susceptible to depression compared to people who were willing to let the small things slide. This was the case whether the individual demanded perfection from themselves or from others. Surprisingly, the study also found that those who felt that society demanded perfection from them were also likely to develop symptoms of depression.
  2. It can make you lonely and isolated. Perfectionism often goes hand in hand with unrealistic expectations, which can slowly push people away from you. Perfectionists can sometimes engage in an almost narcissistic display of their abilities, which doesn't bode well for their social life. Other times, they may choose to avoid participating in events or social situations where their weaknesses are put on display.

So, it's important to take a step back from constantly aiming for perfection. Although adulthood can seem to follow a strict timeline at first, try to zoom out to appreciate the bigger picture. That will bring you to:

2. Enjoying The Process Of Setting Your Own Pace For Your Life

Life is rarely akin to a classroom, where your path is structured, with clear goals and a set timeline. Yes, that makes it somewhat daunting because you don't have a roadmap of what needs to be done to progress to the next step. But that's precisely what is amazing about being an adult: There is no standardized roadmap to adulthood.

What does that mean?

Say you have a friend who's doing all these "adult" things like getting married, having kids, shopping at the farmer's market on weekends and so on. Looking at your friend, you may be compelled to think that this is what you need to do as well. But understand that everyone is on their own journey and not all the stops are the same.

Striking a balance between the short-term goals that make you happy in the moment and the long-term goals that will make you happy in the future is an excellent strategy to deal with situations where peers seem to be "adulting" better than you. Once you find the balance that works for you, you are free to take inspiration from (but not ape) the lifestyle changes your peers have made.


Adulting is a natural process and you don't need to overthink it. That said, it's wise to seek professional help if your new responsibilities are making you anxious. Once you reframe your attitude toward ambiguity, you'll find that adulthood can be exciting.