School is soon to be back in session. As if with one coordinated snap of the head, focus has turned from vacation mode back to class and work. But some people are left feeling out of sync. For people no longer in school, but not yet adjusted to life without its structure and ready-made purpose, the back-to-school season can stir up anguish. Suddenly it feels like you’ve missed all the rehearsals on how to be a confident, happy adult. Summer may have brought relief from uncertainty as everyone frolicked on the beach, read novels, and wasted time, but now the burning questions return with vengeance: What’s next? Who am I?
With school, there were always clearly defined goals. Within each class, there were guidelines and deadlines, and each grade led onto the next. Often, graduation day is about as far as life’s plans reach. There is not much time for planning, nor guidance for how actual life out of school will look.
As a psychotherapist working with people in their twenties and thirties, I see regularly how navigating life after high school, college, and graduate school can take its toll. Where purpose and goals were once pre-defined, there are now often years and years in which each person needs to define those goals for him or herself. When life is no longer segmented strictly according to nine months on, three months off, goals can take a long time to sort out.
Other cultures before us understood these in-between periods of life. They named them and had gods and complex rituals to aid in the transition from one identity to another. The Tibetans call these times bardo states. The Greeks had the god Hermes. The Romans had Janus.
Unfortunately, our culture tends to teach us that the course of life is like the bar graph of a Ponzi scheme: Only growth! Success! Meanwhile, we receive implicit messages through social media that can serve as public shaming of anyone who doesn’t appear joyful, gorgeous, and woke at all times—as if from a belittling coach, high on steroids: Do it! Keep going! Failure is not an option! Be perfect in every way!
But, just like the reality of the stock market or the limits of physical form, a healthy life—not one built entirely on façade—includes periods of uncertainty, depression and confusion, and even mini-deaths of identity in which one’s sense of purpose feels distant, or nonexistent.
Our culture needs a good education in these realities of life. We need to practice honoring periods of transitions, and the long periods when identity and purpose feel distant or invisible. For the most part, this notion doesn’t even have a place in our vocabulary.
The best word we have remains largely unused and comes from the 20th century anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, who coined the term “liminal”—from the Latin limel: threshold. A liminal phase is the period in ritual initiations—primarily those rites that defined the entrance into adulthood—when the identity as a dependent child has died, but before the identity as a full adult has taken form. It was once well known that such a shift of identity is a passage, a journey, a transition. It is an in-between stage like crossing a bridge, or traveling through a dark, mountain tunnel. You’re no longer on one side but not yet on the other.
Despite the level of attention paid to the apparent aberration called the Milennial Generation, the modern epidemic of confusion/grief/anxiety/self-hatred in early adulthood is not new (though anguish and anxiety are certainly heightened by social media and other modern inventions).
In the mid-’60s, J.D. Salinger rendered the malaise of modern twenty-somethings with prescient accuracy in his novelette Franny & Zooey. Franny Glass is a beautiful college student with a handsome Ivy League boyfriend, her own high-priced education, a set of devoted older brothers, and a seemingly well-paved future. Yet she’s absolutely miserable. In the throes of a wrenching emotional crisis and wracked with self-loathing, Franny tells her brother about the torment she feels for her meaningless life and her compulsive cruelty to the people she feels are oblivious to their own meaningless lives: “I knew how I was depressing people, or even hurting their feelings—but I couldn’t stop! I just could not stop picking.”
Franny gives voice to some of the self-hatred and social lamentations I hear regularly in my practice: “I actually reached a point where I said to myself, right out loud, like a lunatic, if I hear just one more picky, caviling, unconstructive word out of you, Franny Glass, you and I are finished.”
It is a glimpse into the inner world of the twenty-something crisis, beyond the symptoms of anxiety and self-harm, of addiction and depression. Ultimately the deepest questions are existential ones: Why am I so miserable? What is the point, and what am I doing here?
Preceding Frances Glass, another Frances had insights into the inner struggle of highly educated youth. In her 1927 book, The Inner World of Childhood, Jungian analyst Frances Wickes depicted a prototypical young man of the era and suggested that the singular pursuit of education is the very root of his widespread sense of disorientation and angst:
“Consciously he is grateful for the opportunities which may include college, a professional training, long apprenticeship; unconsciously he feels the urge to prove himself, to know that he is a man. Scholastic things, in which he may take a genuine interest, fail to satisfy…intellectual training, social conventions have crowded out the other issues which are, after all, the essential ones… Growth comes through individual experience and the understanding of experience. This must be gained by each one for himself.”
The current social script that calls for extending academic work into one’s twenties (and beyond) amplifies emotional anguish for young adults. At the moment when instinct should take over to guide a young person along the age-old journey into life—depicted throughout fairy tales and the Hero’s Journey cycle of mythology—they are instead listening to lectures, studying, reading, and taking tests. Amidst all that education and accumulation of knowledge, the experience of embodied life, curiosity, excitement, and failure has gone missing, or underground into unsettling symptoms of anxiety, depression, and self-hatred.
I can’t help but see the questions of adults in their twenties and thirties as being similar to the silent question of young wives that Betty Friedan so eloquently illuminated in her seminal work, The Feminine Mystique: “Is this all?”
Similarly, Simone de Beauvoir’s description of narcissism and neurosis within housewives in the feminist classic, The Second Sex, helps to reframe the judgment of narcissism lobbed at many young people today: “She is forbidden virile activities. She is busy, but she does not do anything…not being able to accomplish herself in projects and aims.”
“It is a painful condition,” de Beauvoir writes, “to know one is passive and dependent at the age of hope and ambition, at the age when the will to live and to take a place in the world intensifies.”
The picture de Beauvoir paints is not unlike that of caged animals: Unable to fulfill their instinctual and biological drives, it is no surprise that many women and men in young adulthood today develop tendencies toward self-aggrandizement, self-harm, refusal to eat, or erratic behavior. They want to move, but they cannot: They are stuck by prescribed academic expectations, cultural norms, constant comparison with others, traumatic experiences, meaningless jobs they are told they are supposed to love, or an utter lack of opportunity altogether—trapped by economics and social expectation as they were once trapped in the home.
If we replace the man-catching preparation for marriage with the years of prescriptive, yet often inapplicable, liberal arts education, the end results are about the same: relative isolation and the cultural prescription to pretend that you are happy and carry on, no matter what. What other choice do you have? Meanwhile, the desire to become oneself, even if the urge to do so is vague, remains unsettling and unmet.
For these reasons, life after school is typically disorienting. Where there was once structure and goals, there are only loose expectations and financial needs. Where there was emphasis on typically “impractical” knowledge, there is now need for tremendously practical skill sets. Where there was once community in abundance, there are now thousands of miles between friends. Where there were once demands that you follow the prescribed goals for life, there is now an expectation that you define your own, with no guidance or support.
So, here’s the part where I offer advice for how to handle these years ahead, this liminal time between your identity as a student and your identity as a person with individual purpose and interests, and goals that make your heart sing:
Before you worry too much about the future, acknowledge that this is both a beginning of something new, and an ending. Look at where you’ve been before you try to sort through where you’re going. Slow down. This is a time to take stock, to sort through your past, just as it is a time to look ahead with courage and excitement. It is both a time of conclusions and new beginnings. The death of your past needs to be honored in order to truly step into the next phase. The god Janus had two faces for just this purpose—to look towards the future and towards the past.
Your identity, like your daily routine and your housing situation, may be in flux. You are no longer a student. You are, according to all cultural expectations, no longer a child. And yet, like most of your peers, you may not be quite sure what you are yet either.
Take time to honor what has ended. Give yourself space to grieve and relax. Allow yourself to sleep and play and get into your creative self. Embrace the fears that may be tapping you on the shoulder, or the anxiety that may bug you in your stomach. Look it all in the eye and acknowledge that it is there.
Because this period of in-between tends to be all about the unknown, the unseen, the not-yet understood, try not to hide from the uncertainty. To pretend that all is well when you are scared or sad will only cause greater disorientation. You can celebrate this time, to be sure, but if you don’t feel like celebrating, don’t fake it. Faking joy around others (or on social media) is a quick path to unrelenting depression (and it doesn’t help others’ mental health either). If you are struggling with your sense of life’s purpose, know that you are not the only one.
Instead, embrace the unknown as if you could, in fact, wrap your body around the darkness and let yourself sink down. Let it devour you and devour it back as if you are lovers, or adversaries who must tangle in order to fight. Tangle with this death of old things, so that you can more swiftly and truly find your way through to your new identity on the other side.
Practically speaking, when people ask you what you’re doing next with your life, tell them that you’re not entirely sure. Tell them with a calm heart that you are in a liminal period, a state of transition, that you’re saying goodbye to one identity and starting to create the next.
Then, you can sleep. Rest. Gain perspective of what you’ve been doing in school for the last two-odd decades. Read excellent novels that wake up your heart and make time disappear. Spend time in nature. Listen to music. Swim in fresh waters. Make art. Journal. Cry. Dance. If you’re like most modern people, your left brain has just had a lifelong workout. Let it rest. Give your right brain—your artistic, curious, imaginative self—some attention for a change. Give your body attention for the sake of love, not sculpting or photos.
Remember how to play. (Without the assistance of alcohol or drugs.)
When you embrace the uncertainty and allow your identity to be in flux, you will slowly begin to re-collect yourself. You will remember in bits and pieces who you are at your roots and who you want to be. Notice the humans who are further along in life who make your heart light up. Learn about their journeys. Make notes on what it is about them that gives you hope. This will all help you to clarify who you want to be, and who you already are.
Look into the world and see what social issues pull at your heartstrings. Then take time to notice what truly brings you joy, with no pressure or expectations. See where these things might overlap. Do not rush this process.
The feminist poet Audre Lorde begins her essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” with this exquisite insight: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.”
Be it through psychotherapy, devoted journaling, or a regular art practice, the exploration of oneself, one’s personality, past, likes and dislikes, dreams and hopes, sexuality and physicality, ancestry, and goals for the future, one begins to discover structure for the otherwise uncharted path for coming into adulthood.
Do not shy away from alone time, without your devices or company. As the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.”
Rediscover your joy by staring deeply into the unknown, without guilt or shame or expectation. It is the greatest thing you can do for yourself. And, if you are truly going to help the rest of us get through this messy world, it is the greatest thing you can do for us now too.
originally published on goop.com