• Our thirties can be a significant decade, with many people making big decisions about work, home, love and children

  • Therapist Marcus Bowery reflects on his own earlier challenges and offers 3 simple steps to overcoming a third-life crisis

  • Therapists and counsellors can support you with finding meaning and times of transition – find yours here

We like to measure things in our lives, sometimes by our own volition, sometimes by parameters that ring-fence our time. Children’s birthdays remind us of our own ageing, school years are peppered with half-term breaks, and civil partnership or relationship anniversaries ground us yearly on a special date – has it really been that long?!

However, are our life goals (if we call them that), achievements and pinnacles as easy to measure before we have made those life commitments, and is there more discontent without them? I say this, not to in any way devalue anyone’s choices if they actively pursue a single life, choose not to raise children or don’t believe that a certificate is the only way to prove one’s commitment to another, but more as an observation that I have made of younger men going through a period of uncertainty and evaluation in their lives.

I certainly remember my early thirties as a time when I was (and still am) in a committed relationship, but work worries and taking stock of my worth in relation to the wider world had a profound effect on my wellbeing. I sought therapy then (although I didn’t have the wherewithal to find out what kind) and spent many hours sitting in a rather dismal little room, struggling to bring up topics relevant to my anxieties and still not getting any understanding about myself or how to move forward.

Working with men in their thirties now, I have seen themes of anxiety, demands to know what the future holds, and a concerted effort to craft a clear pathway out of the fog of uncertainty. If this is a third-life crisis – loosely 28-38 – then how best to navigate it? 

When supporting clients using REBT – Rational Emotive behaviour Therapy – one of the key areas of exploration has to include focussing on any dominant but unrealistic demands that a client is holding onto. Questions around freedom and the perceived lack of it, comparing ourselves to our peers and setting some achievable goals are all hot topics to be addressed when gaining some understanding of where we are, and where we would like to be.

What surprises some, is that while feelings of anxiety over work performance or finding someone to love may be metaphorically slapping us in the face, the more insidious nature of self-criticism, when left unrecognised or challenged, can eventually manifest as depression which can often sit in the background, casting a shadow on our achievements and day-to-day life.

Kristen Tobias, writing on the Albert Ellis Institute website states: ‘the type of contemplation inherent to these life phases may be associated with activation of irrational beliefs about where one should be and what must happen.’

With this in mind, here are my three quick tips for taking the first step onto that path out of the fog.

1. Stop comparing 

Seeing others’ achievements as an aspirational motivator is one thing, but constantly doing yourself down because you’re not where someone else is really doesn’t make sense. This is YOUR LIFE, not theirs! There is no rule anywhere which dictates where one should or should not be in life – you just made that up!

2. Remind yourself what your core values are 

It’s not something we do often, but they are a clear indicator of whether you are trying to meet your own needs, or whether you’re scrabbling to integrate life decisions which actually aren’t inherently important to you. That can only cause internal conflict.

3. Try to develop a sense of unconditional self-acceptance

Sadly, this isn’t something you can order from Amazon, but it’s of prime importance, nevertheless. You have intrinsic value because you are here, and you cannot be scored or rated wholly. We do great things, we make mistakes. We achieve, we fail. None of these make us entirely perfect, or fully a failure.

Marcus Bowery is a verified Welldoing therapist in Hove and online

Further reading

The benefits of being curious about yourself

How reviewing your regrets can transform your life

Compare and despair: dealing with feelings of inadequacy

The five different types of imposter syndrome

What to do if you feel like you don't fit in