“Why am I so behind my peers?” Is a question I hear a lot from the clients I work with, specifically those who struggled with anxiety throughout their childhoods and adolescence. Since I have been asked this repeatedly I thought it would be valuable to discuss this issue in more detail. So, how does having anxiety in your developmental years impact your later readiness for different milestones?
Readiness to try out new stages (such as dating, going to college, starting an internship, looking for work, getting married, having children) require a willingness to tolerate the good and bad parts of each experience. For example, while entering into your first relationship can lead to having a best friend to share thoughts with and with whom to explore physical intimacy, you have to deal with some pretty uncomfortable experiences, too. It can be super awkward the first time you kiss someone, and unlike in the movies, it is not a smooth transition from talking to kissing. There is often a lot of fumbling and discomfort (it makes me cringe just thinking about it).
But here is the key: When we are anxious it is really hard to sit with the cringe-worthy feelings that come up. We feel as though they are too scary, too much and will never end, so we avoid them altogether. The problem, though, is that by attempting to avoid discomfort, we also end up missing out on the joy. We miss out on the all the fun after that awkward moment subsides. We miss out on giggling with a new beau about just how funny it was before we kissed or how long we have both been waiting to do this. Because we never experience this natural progression from discomfort to ease we don’t learn that we can handle the situation. We continually, and repeatedly, avoid.
The key is to take deep breaths (preferably 3 in your diaphragm) and remind yourself that riding the wave of discomfort can help you learn more about yourself. Like the lotus flower that gets its beautiful petals from growing in mud, you need to step in the muck in order to feel the growth.
Another reason you might struggle with moving forward with developmental stages is because you’ve learned to rely on others’ opinions about what to do—something we call “reassurance seeking.” We all ask for reassurance at times, and we need it. Friends and family provide us with feedback about the behaviors we sometimes can’t recognize in ourselves, and this is invaluable. However, when we are anxious we get in to a repetitive pattern of NEEDING to ask for reassurance before we can make any and all moves ourselves. This is when anxiety turns us from being curious to being dependent.
It is very hard to make developmental shifts when we rely on others to confirm our choices. So many milestones are based on our personal preferences. For example, how many of you have been out with a really good friend and then met their partner and thought, “They are nice, but I would never want to date them.” That is absolutely expected because only we know what we really want and need. We can turn to others for some information, but for choices like Who do I want to spend the majority of my social time with?” and “How do I want to spend my days working?”, it’s all you! You need to be the one to make the choice. Of course this means you will make some mistakes, but the key here is that if you make the mistake, you will learn from it. On the other hand, if someone else tells you to try something and it is a mistake then you just think they were wrong. So, reassurance is a huge obstacle to moving forward.
Avoidance of discomfort and reassurance seeking are hallmark behaviors of anxiety. These behaviors are adaptive when there is a visible threat, but when we have anxiety, they hold us back from exploration, making changes, and learning what we really want. Therefore, young adults who have struggled with anxiety often find that they are behind their peers in developmental milestones. But working with a trusted therapist can help tremendously. I would encourage you to work with someone to help work on avoiding these two behavioral tendencies that can perpetuate anxiety rather than easing it.