I should have written my book by now, I want to have kids no later than 35. I should have started a food blog years ago, it’s probably too late now. Have you ever found yourself thinking similar thoughts?
Somewhere along the way, humans began placing constraints upon ourselves and upon those around us, specifically to do with our time. These constraints may manifest themselves via such false narratives or beliefs as one is too young or one is too old to meet certain goals or dreams they may have for themselves, or one is past the age to do what they want. Many of these beliefs inevitably lead us to then actively gauge, weigh and measure how much time we have left to do what we want.
Our unconscious mind has been especially sneaky in picking up on these beliefs – it feeds them back to us, and convinces us along the way, with influence added in from outside sources, that these false narratives and beliefs must be true. Before long these constraints define our value, our worth, our accomplishments and who we are as people.
It’s frightening how EASY it can be to find ourselves stuck in mental ruts that allow our minds to get swept up in false beliefs or false narratives that tell us we are too young, too old, too inexperienced, too short on time to do what we want with our lives.
If there is a psychological term for this, I am unaware of it, but for the sake of this post, I would like to refer to this phenomenon as The Timeline Complex. The idea that we use time constraints to measure our own accomplishments and the accomplishments of others, as well as using time constraints as a primary benchmark for the completion of our goals and dreams. Oftentimes, this benchmark is associated with or can evoke feelings of shame, failure, self-doubt, self-blame and/or sadness.
I, of course, am not a professional psychologist and I may be more off my rocker here than on point with making up names for random experiences. What I do know is that this is something I have experienced and am working to confront. As I have stressed before in previous posts, I tend to confront my mental health ruts by making lengthy blog posts about them. I dissect how they affect me, then I begin to look for more positive, alternative viewpoints that make me stop and say “well.. hold the phone on that irrational thought/false belief/false narrative for just one second”.
I also recognize, that a health professional reading this may accuse me of spreading misinformation – slapping a name on something without doing any prior research into if a title for the experience actually exists – but that is genuinely not my intent. My intent is to place a name, a label, that works best for me, on this experience that has held me back and kept me afraid, worried and concerned. Giving it my own name allows for me to confront and identify the experience more efficiently, more carefully and more fully, in a way that works for me. Not to mention, if someone comes along and decides the name I have placed on this, works for them and their experience as well, then they can feel free to use it, too.
You may be familiar with the idea of a complex, the most familiar example to many of us is an Inferiority Complex. A complex itself is defined as:
A related group of emotionally significant ideas that are completely or partly repressed and that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior.
Breaking down this definition, we can start to see how it might apply to The Timeline Complex:
Emotionally significant ideas – Examples would include what we want to do with our lives, the significant goals and dreams we plan, create and manifest for ourselves.
Completely or Partly Repressed – These ideas become repressed when we as people begin communicating beliefs and narratives to ourselves and to others that our capabilities and our limitations are defined by our age. We also communicate that we are defined by what stage we are at in our lives. Oftentimes, we view the stage we are at in our lives and what we have accomplished by a certain age as interchangeable – they in turn become a method to measure ourselves and others. We also use whether or not we have accomplished what we should have by a certain stage, as a method of measurement. This last component in particular, I will come back to shortly.
Psychic Conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior – The psychic conflict comes into play when we unconsciously deny ourselves what we want to do with our lives, we start to diminish the reality of working on or achieving our goals and our dreams because we define ourselves, our capabilities and our limitations by our age, as well as our accomplishments by said age. Which leads to:
Abnormal mental states or behaviors – in the form of such thoughts as I should have written my book by now, I want to have kids no later than 35. I should have started a food blog years ago, it’s probably too late now. Sometimes these thoughts are accompanied by shame or failure, as I previously mentioned, but also a potential feeling of urgency, as if time is running out.
I touched previously upon what we should have accomplished by a certain age. What exactly determines the benchmark for accomplishment for various stages in our lives? The people we surround ourselves with for one – what your friends have accomplished by a certain age, as well as what your family has impressed upon you to some degree. Their values? Their hopes and dreams for your betterment?
Information we consume is another benchmark – social media and the news, as well as what society as a whole communicates to us – societal pressures, especially those pressures placed upon women (more on that later). We look for similarities and we look for differences, we look for the with’s and the without’s, we look for the have’s and have not’s and slowly we begin to form comparisons and create standards to live by based off of all these factors combined.
My Experience with The Timeline Complex
This is one narrative which I have allowed to somewhat run my life for the past few years. I’ve focused a lot of my energy on timelines which primarily exist within my unconscious mind, but admittedly that have also been conjured by outside influences. This includes placing steep self-imposed timelines upon myself. In addition to being concerned about a lack of time to do what I want, I have had a hard time really getting clear about what exactly it is I want to do, too. It turns out while focusing so much on not having enough time to do what I want or concerning myself with the future, that my time started to slip away without even realizing it.
One example for me would be YouTube. I briefly started up a fun, informal, YouTube channel with a friend when I was 25. Even with a fun and easy-going project such as that, the narrative in my head was that I was too old to be doing it. People with mass followings who were in their early 30’s, whom I respected for continuing to follow their path despite the platform seemingly turning to a younger audience, had started in their late teens, early 20’s. Many had been chipping away at where they are now for years. I was starting at 25, would I be 40 by the time I was as successful as those YouTubers in their early 30’s?
Another example would be completing my Master’s degree – my goal was to finish it by the time I was 30. The kicker is I had (and have) no desire to re-enter a classroom anytime soon. I’d had a handful of friends do back to back Bachelor’s then Master’s degrees. I thought maybe I should too, get it knocked out of the way. My parents had also been supportive in suggesting the possibility of me going back to school but I didn’t know what I would focus my degree on and didn’t want to spend the time or the money to go back to school when my head and my heart weren’t really in it. I also had experienced the workforce, which meant earning a good salary – I wasn’t about to drop everything to prioritize school again and sacrifice my apartment or my career, just so I could satisfy my own goal for myself (partially as well for the benefit of others, too). I also recognized that if I did not meet my very specific, very soon timeline I was pressing upon myself, I would be disappointed and that would probably deter me from going back to school even more.
A third and final example would be engagement, marriage, babies – that whole shebang. Admittedly, I am 27 and single. I want to get married, I want to have kids. That being said, I don’t want children before the age of 30 – I aspire and aim to experience further growth spurts within my career first and I’ve got some traveling I still want to do. Not to mention (while many people might argue there is no difference before and after), I want to enjoy married life first, prior to introducing kids into the picture.
But as close friends gradually get engaged, get married, start having children, I’ve experienced this weird internal itch that tells me I am somehow falling behind (hey – wait for me!). Is it because of some unconscious calling to wifely duties which I should be fulfilling by now? Is it the unconscious calling of a barren womb while friends around me seem to be pushing out offspring at a yearly rate? (okay, I giggled a bit at how dramatic that sounded when I typed it – barren womb – but YOU GET MY POINT). Every other aspect of my life seems to be flourishing, but this one piece of my life is … well … stunted. That’s a good word for it.
People who ask my age, usually reply with oh you’re a youngin’ you’ve got all the time in the world (how many times have you heard that if you’re still in your 20’s?). While they aren’t saying it (and aren’t implying it), a little voice in my head likes to pop up at this point in the conversation and point out that yes, BUT you should probably have children by 35, otherwise your eggs will start to dry up and getting pregnant is no walk in the park when you’re starting to push 40. I envision that voice sounds like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. How typical, – an old, white man dictating my reproductive should’s and should not’s. Yeesh.
And then in most cases, because I have a critical inner voice, it will usually pop a thought or two in my head to the effect of:
“What’s wrong with you? Why haven’t you met someone yet? There must be something wrong with you, all of your friends are in normal, healthy, happy relationships – it’s probably because you overthink your relationships to the point of self-sabotage that they all turn out to be a big, hot pile of steaming garbage anyways”.
Ahh my Inner Voice – she’s such a sweetheart, ain’t she?
Bottom line it can be a battle to attempt to swim upstream against the current of your life and the time you are given. Especially in my late twenties, an underlying push and pull messaging has weezled it’s way into my cranium – a message of sure, you’ve got time, but not too much time. I think for women especially, there’s more of a ticking clock, perhaps because the Motherhood 4500 starts driving by the front of your house, revving up it’s ovary engines.
Ovary Engines? Did I really just use that term?
But let me tell you something – being single at 27 is actually normal (AND OKAY).
Having goals and dreams is normal.
Recognizing goals and dreams take time to develop and come to fruition is normal.
Constraining yourself to the idea that if you do not complete a task or meet an accomplishment by a certain age or stage in your life, then you might as well give up on it, OR that your worth or your value is somehow lessened, is abnormal.
Dictating that someone’s worth or value is less than yours because they haven’t completed or checked off what they should have done or completed by now, according to societal standards (or your standards) is abnormal.
That’s right – i’m calling you and your standards out. Stop it.
Truth be told, I have found ways to take solace amidst my own Timeline Complex.
If YouTube had worked out and turned from a fun project into an actual thing, it might have meant not creating this blog. Not surprising, I actually find writing and curating content for this blog a lot more meaningful, a lot more cathartic and a lot more fun than YouTube. I hop on here and ideas flow and my ability to express my thoughts, emotions and feelings is much clearer than I think any amount of time spent in front of my iPhone camera filming (even for recordings on my Instagram account) would give me.
I realized my desire to complete a Master’s degree was for the wrong reasons – because my friends were doing it, because it meant a bigger pay cheque to accompany the new designation which would now appear at the end of my name next to my BA, all especially while not knowing what I was going to study and my head and my heart not being in it. So I let go of it.
Letting go of the time constraint altogether of obtaining a Master’s degree by the time I was 30, lessened a lot of the pressure I had placed upon myself. Maybe i’ll do it when I’m 35, maybe i’ll do it when i’m 45, I honestly don’t know, it’s not a priority for me at the moment. The point is I no longer feel pressure to produce the work and get the degree by the time i’m 30 and that’s what works best for me.
On a similar note, not doing a Master’s degree right after my Bachelor’s allowed me to accept job opportunities which set me on the right track for my career, while a lot of my friends were working menial tasks such as teaching assistants or dorm supervisors because they couldn’t keep full time employment while doing an MA. Of course, that’s what worked for them at the time, and I respect the work and the commitment they put towards their degrees, but I value those few extra years where I got a jump start in making strides towards my career path.
Being single for a good chunk of my twenties, has led me to the fulfilling and unique experience of solo travel through Europe – three times! I didn’t wait for a partner or a boyfriend to come along to do it, I didn’t ask a friend, I just did it. If i’d been in a relationship over these time periods, who knows if I would have gone, or what that would have looked like – less freedom, more compromise on my ideal trip?
Being single at 27, has also allowed me to shape and better define as I have aged what I want and what I do not want in a relationship. It has granted me the ability to recognize that while I am much more mature now than when I was 21 and in a relationship, I still have significant strides to make in my emotional maturity and my mental health in relation to entering and maintaining healthy relationships. AND THAT IS OKAY.
Being single at 27, also means not stressing about what the future may look like. It can be hard some days – being single as 30 approaches while watching friends move on to new stages in their lives and wanting that for myself too. I know what I want but if what I want does not take place, then i’ll be okay with that – it comes back to not stressing about things out of my control. I could be destined to be the cool fairy godmother for all my friend’s children, who sprinkles them with gifts, plays with them, then gives them back to their parents at the end of the day. That would be second string to being someone’s wifey and a momma myself, but while i’m all for attracting what you want in life and being optimistic, i’m also a realist and I think that can be healthy, too.
When looking at the bigger picture of my life, I recognize that yeah, there’s stuff I haven’t done in my timeline which others seem to be doing. But by not doing them, and following the same pattern as others, I’ve done what has worked for me, I’ve removed stress from certain elements within my life and in turn, created opportunities which might not have otherwise existed.
And just because I haven’t done them right this minute, before I turn 30, let’s panic, asdfghytr – it doesn’t mean I won’t do them at some point in my life. At the end of the day the only timeline that matters is the one I choose to follow.
Have you experienced a similar Timeline Complex in your life? Tell me about it in the comments below.