My teenage self got life wrong in a lot of ways. I would not lose my virginity on a petal-strewn Greco-Roman plinth, that poster of Mona Lisa smoking a spliff was not cool and having small breasts definitely wasn’t a curse.
But my teen self did get life right in one way: at the start of every year, I’d begin my diary with a list of goals I wanted to attain, ranging from the absolutely banal to the downright unrealistic – like making a certain someone fall in love with me. Whether it was down to a short attention span or the fact that I fell in love with a new person every two minutes, I never beat myself up for not achieving this, or any of my other goals. They changed all the time and fluidly moved alongside my life as I evolved and grew.
Somewhere between this and adulthood, however, these life goals became a fixed point. I had to meet The One. Get married. Own a house. Be rich. Succeed in my career. Have children.
The underlying narrative was that achieving these things was the only way to be happy. So, if I didn’t do them, I’d be miserable and alone. And, always, like the crocodile in Peter Pan, lurking in the nearby waters of my anxiety, I heard the ticking of a clock that time was running out, no matter what age I was.
The near-constant anxiety that you might not meet the goals you laid out for yourself is a very real thing. Model Leomie Anderson recently coined the acronym FOMOMG, which stands for: fear of missing out on my goals. In an article for Lapp, she wrote about the anxiety she felt over not buying a house by a certain age or earning a particular amount of money. She also acknowledged that having such rigidity around life goals isn’t realistic or helpful.
She wrote: “If I remain fearful of NOT achieving my goals, what strength and positivity do I leave myself to work towards reaching them? One thing I have learned on this journey is to accept that life is not a linear journey that can be copy and pasted to perfection and neither are our emotions.”
I’m operating from the experience that life definitely isn’t linear, and it certainly doesn’t unfold the way you think it will. For instance, by this point in time, I thought I would still be married – my husband Rob passed away three years ago – and I thought I would definitely have kids.
A lot of the fear, grief and sadness could be lessened if we understood that goals are allowed to change
Ironically, it has taken losing a lot to realise that a lot of the energy and heartache we expend on unattained goals could be mitigated in several ways.
The first is to ask yourself where that goal originated from and why you want to attain it. Marriage, for example, is a biggie. Do you want to be married or do you want to love and be loved? You don’t necessarily need one to have the other. Asking yourself this question will help you better understand whether something like marriage is actually your goal, or perhaps just something you felt unconsciously pressured into having because everyone else was doing the same.
The second applies to when you use other people as a measuring stick for your own goals. After Rob passed away, a big part of me felt a dissonance at where my life goals now were (i.e. in the toilet) compared to how everyone else was doing.
According to Instagram, they were doing bloody brilliantly, and social media is the worst for supercharging the rage and inadequacy you feel if life hasn’t turned out like you thought it would. I couldn’t see how I could catch up, and that made me feel like my life was pretty much over.
Which brings me to point three. We create these life goals as if life exists in a vacuum. Human beings like order and chronology, and it lessens some of the screaming terror that we are merely specks in space to believe that if we do A and B, then C is a definite outcome. But if sharing a planet with billions of people should teach you anything, it’s that you can’t control everything because you can’t control what other people do. And if we understood that the responsibility of achieving a goal doesn’t rest entirely on your shoulders, that would go a long way to quashing some of the fear felt around it.
It also strikes me that a lot of the fear, grief and sadness could be lessened if we understood that goals are allowed to change. That regularly looking at your life and asking yourself whether it’s what you really want is a necessary part of mental-wellbeing maintenance.
I don't think you have to wait for your life to crumble before deciding to set yourself new goals, but I definitely think this type of life inventory helps you to lead a more truthful existence. Because, quite honestly, the things that gave my life meaning two years ago, let alone 10, are not the same as now, and that should always be guiding compass for when you set yourself a goal.
That meaning is different for everyone but, for me, it includes being happy with my work and falling furiously and dramatically in love. I think, somewhere, my teenage self would be proud.