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Opinion: How to be an adult — when you don’t feel like an adult

I talked with a licensed therapist about what it means to be a ‘real’ adult in a world full of arbitrary markers

SHARE Opinion: How to be an adult — when you don’t feel like an adult
A man stands under a lamp and scratches his head. An open laptop four times his size sits next to him.

Adult impostor syndrome is the feeling that you are unqualified or not truly old enough to be trusted with adult tasks. Overcoming adult impostor syndrome starts with removing the comparison to others.

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Have you ever caught yourself thinking — or accidentally voicing out loud — “We really need an adult here. Where’s the adult?” before belatedly realizing, with blushing embarrassment, that it’s you?

Why are so many of us confused about our identities as adults? The messaging may be to blame. As The Atlantic pens it, “In the United States, you can’t drink until you are 21, but legal adulthood, along with voting and the ability to join the military, comes at age 18. Or does it? You’re allowed to watch adult movies at 17. And kids can hold a job as young as 14.”

Kayla Mennenga, co-owner and clinical director of Grace Therapy and Healing with a doctorate in marriage and family therapy, adds to the list of confusing messages on adulthood: “You can’t rent a car until you’re 25. You also can’t go on a cruise” without being accompanied by a 25-year-old until you’re 21 — “unless you’re married, because a 19-year-old who’s married somehow makes it better.” The line between adolescence and adulthood is perpetually blurry. But Mennenga adds that “there’s a difference between being an adult and having adult responsibilities. A 16-year-old who has a baby is not an adult, but does have adult responsibilities.”

Mennenga has seen adult impostor syndrome, or the feeling that you aren’t qualified to be a “real adult,” in the clients she works with at her therapy practice, and she has experienced it herself. I sat down with her to discuss how to overcome it — or learn to live with it.

The problem of comparison

One of the problems about defining adulthood is that it’s often based in comparison. “Sometimes we get so busy looking at other people that we start to feel like we’re not good enough. ‘I should be somewhere in my life that I’m not.’ But I would only know that or think that because I’m looking outside of me,” Mennenga told me.

Even our favorite celebrities feel this comparison in adulthood.

Emma Watson, during a 2019 interview with Vogue, said this about turning 30: “I was like, ‘Why does everyone make such a big fuss about turning 30? This is not a big deal.’ Cut to 29, and ... If you have not built a home, if you do not have a husband, if you do not have a baby, and you are turning 30, and you’re not in some incredibly secure, stable place in your career, or you’re still figuring things out — there’s just this incredible amount of anxiety.”

Where adolescence ends and adulthood begins

As Mennenga pointed out, adulthood is not a clear-cut transition. Instead, we gain gradual responsibility over time. The feeling of adulthood is therefore a gradual ascension for many of us, which has led some researchers to adopt the term “emerging adulthood,” coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, as a new stage of life between adolescence and fully-fledged adulthood.

Mennenga points to a reordering of priorities that define this emergence. As we gain more independence from our parents or childhood support structures, our perspectives shift. Where hanging out with friends was once the most important thing to plan our lives around, emerging adults slowly take responsibility over their rent, insurance, education, employment, phone bill and other personal needs.

By acquiring responsibility throughout our 20s, we set ourselves up for adulthood little by little. We may not know exactly when we became adults, but looking backward, we can see that adolescence is no longer where we are.

How to feel like a real adult

Sometimes I have moments where I feel like a real adult, usually right after I’ve accomplished something big, like detangling different health insurance options. It’s this sense of accomplishment tied to independence that makes me believe I could survive as an adult — and helps me realize that I am surviving as an adult.

Being an adult is not about checking off all the predefined mile markers in a certain order. Mennenga is in her late 30s, she’s never been married and she doesn’t own a home. She also has a doctoral degree and owns a successful business. Would anyone say she’s not a real adult because her mile markers look different than someone else’s?

When we feel pressure to achieve a “necessary” adult mile marker like marriage or home ownership before we can be taken seriously, Mennenga suggests asking these three questions: “Where does that come from? Why do you want to do that? Who told you that you are where you are?” She adds that if the pressure is stemming from comparison to others or societal expectations, we should bring our focus back to our actual desires.

“It is acceptance of where you are, and who you are. You know, the older I get, the more I’m like, ‘Ah, I mean, it would be nice to own a home, but is that really like, the thing?’”

For those of us who are experiencing adult impostor syndrome, she recommends challenging any comparisons we might be making. “Your boss has accomplished more, and that’s normal. But it doesn’t take away from what you’ve accomplished.”

We’re all adult here. While your imposter syndrome may linger for a while, or come and go in seasons, you don’t need to look behind you for the “real” adult.