Not long ago, a patient of mine began to express a dramatic shift in his thinking. For years, he had been plagued by persistent anger that his dysfunctional family had set him on a difficult path, and he had paid dearly in periods of depression, addiction, and relationship failures. But within a few months, despite the slow progress he had made until that point, suddenly he was no longer compelled to ruminate about his chaotic and abusive childhood. Therapy can often work this way – fits and starts, incremental steps followed by big leaps.
But there was a simpler truth: he was turning 35.
Since he had left home at 17, he had now spent more than half of his life away from his family. He could claim more time spent on his own terms and this was immensely liberating. We talked about this a great deal – how his childhood was fading further in his rearview mirror as he continued travelling on his life course.
The insight itself did not cause a complete life change, but it did reframe his perception of life. It put him squarely in charge of how he wanted his life to play out.
Of course, not everyone has this insight and not everyone to whom this is pointed out reacts in the same way. There are people who spend their entire lives lamenting about their crappy childhoods. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that their pain and suffering was not real, nor that they should just “pull themselves up by their boot straps”. It takes a lot of work and a lot of letting go. But the idea that more of your life has been lived on your own, instead of in the confines of your childhood is a monumental shift. I would also say that this is not only true for people who had painful pasts. Realizing that you have lived more of life on your own can be empowering to anyone, but especially to those who have suffered at the hands of people who had control over their lives.
I am fond of the quote which has been attributed to everyone from Lily Tomlin to Irvin Yalom: You have to give up all hope of a better past. Because essentially ruminating about your childhood pain and suffering keeps you securely planted in the past and meanwhile your life continues to march forward and you are missing out on some of your best years.
I share this because I too remember the moment when I turned exactly 34 years + 1 day. It was as if I was actually waiting for this magical date because on that very day I stood squarely in my life with my feet planted beneath me, knowing that every decision I made going forward would be my choice, based on my wants and needs. I owned every step forward.
For those of you in your early 30s who may be needing this psychological encouragement, as you inch closer to your crossover date (whether that is 33, 35 or 36), celebrate the moment for all it’s worth. Celebrate it privately or among friends, hold yourself tightly or whoop it up. 35 is the age of freedom.
Of course, you don’t have to wait for that date either … by all means, claim your freedom any time.