Life in your twenties – for me that very phrase conjures up ideas of freedom, hedonistic pursuits, career goals, new found but nevertheless welcomed responsibilities – first home, first car, the means to explore the world through travel and new experiences, the nurturing of friendships and relationships and possibly returning to the family home. Snapshots of all of these are commonly available through whichever social media platform you care to use but what is the day-to-day reality for this age group in today’s society away from the digitised world?
Over the last ten years I have worked with numerous young adults in their twenties in my capacity as a counsellor and, of course, had my own experience of being that age pre- and post-millennial. For many of the young adults I have worked with it is their first experience of therapy, or at least , of any kind of longer term therapy. Their reasons for seeking therapy are various – lack of fulfilment, anxiety, depression, difficult childhood experiences, relationship difficulties and family breakdowns - but there seems to be one common theme which occurs again and again for these clients: identity.
On first presentation clients may talk of feeling dissatisfied, unfulfilled and confused – not knowing what they want but knowing they want something to change and feeling like they need support to do this. The question I routinely ask in a client’s first session, “What would you like to gain from therapy?”, is met with confusion. “I know I want things to be different to how they are now,” the client will often say, looking to myself for guidance as to how they may enact those differences. But in order to explore what we may want that is different we need to know exactly where we are now. That is where, in my experience, younger clients can struggle.
Many of the younger clients I have seen are University educated and have spent the majority of their adults life so far pursuing the all important degree qualification. The onus for them has been on studies, exams, academic results. Their performance around these have then been used as a reference point for how they feel and how perceive themselves as a person – “a good scholar”, ”pressured”,” top of the class”, “anxious”, “studious”, “career-orientated” are some of the terms they may experience. The adults around them – parents, family members, tutors as well as their peers, may talk frequently of exam stress, anxiety, goals associated with completing their degree and future career prospects. Yet, for these clients, there doesn’t appear to be much dialogue around what might happen for them emotionally once the frame of reference of academia has been removed. Having negotiated the territory of academia it appears that the navigational tools or the “identity compass” as I call it (set reference points listed above that we perceive we are, may experience, ascribe to, work towards) are suddenly removed. Couple with this with the perceptions of other’s successes as portrayed in the digitised world and younger clients can be left with confusion as to who they are or what they are doing. This may lend itself to such questions as, “What is the point?”, “What contribution am I now making to the World?”, “Who am I?”.
Therapy, with right therapist, can be a secure starting point to look at some of these questions where these clients can explore themselves, without judgement and with curiosity, in a very real and honest way. An acceptance and acknowledgement by both the therapist and the younger client that they are experiencing a time of transition, that they are still finding out who they are and their way in life can be hugely insightful. Providing the possibility of their own “identity compass” rather than one that is assigned to the younger client can be as impactful as the therapy itself – to have someone alongside you saying, “I get where you are at and I am here to help YOU work out who YOU are” can be the catalyst for engaging in this new life chapter in a different and more authentic way. In time, the client is then able to acknowledge their place in the world, all the feelings, joys and difficulties that come with that and to imagine what they may want to be different in the future.