Milestone Anxiety: Feeling Like You're Not Where You Should Be

Do you feel that, at your age, you should've achieved many more things than you have? For instance, a stable job, a house, or even children? This perception can lead to a type of anxiety. Learn about it here.
Milestone Anxiety: Feeling Like You're Not Where You Should Be
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 08 June, 2023

“I’m just not where I want to be in my life.” Do you often find yourself thinking this way? Do you have the feeling that you haven’t yet fulfilled many of your dreams or personal goals? In fact, many of us suffer from milestone anxiety.

It consists of an indefinable feeling of vital failure. It involves the feeling that becoming adults and maturing hasn’t meant conquering what we desired when we were children. Moreover, society and the economic mechanisms that orchestrate it have the ability to slow down our personal fulfillment and independence.

For instance, it isn’t easy to find a stable job or be able to buy a house, and this persistent frustration often translates into a form of psychological discomfort. If you’re currently suffering from milestone anxiety, we suggest that you continue reading to find out more.

Those who experience the most pressure to achieve milestones are millennials and generation Z.

Milestone anxiety

Milestone anxiety defines the psychological pressure that people experience when they perceive that they haven’t yet met many of their expectations and life goals. If you want to understand the implication of this reality, you must clarify the relevance of your own expectations in human fulfillment, well-being, and happiness. If these fail, a part of you collapses.

A study published in the journal, Cognition & Emotion, states that when people don’t achieve what they expected, it causes them more suffering than reaching it and then being disappointed. One example would be longing for a stable job. If you get it and it’s not as perfect as you thought, it doesn’t hurt as much as if you never got it in the first place.

On the other hand, it should be noted that this anxiety, by itself, isn’t a clinical entity nor considered to be a disorder. As such, it doesn’t appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Despite this fact, it’s a psychological reality that causes increasing discomfort.

Characteristics of life pressure anxiety

In 2022, the psychological counseling company, Relate, conducted a study that brought to the table an issue that’s not discussed much: millennials and Generation Z experience the most milestone anxiety. Indeed, these young people are taking longer today to become independent, own their own homes, and have children.

This represents a symptomatic picture of perceptions, thoughts, and obvious feelings of discomfort. For example:

  • Low self-esteem.
  • Feelings of vital failure.
  • Critical and self-destructive internal dialogue.
  • Weakened and distorted self-concept.
  • Hopelessness and the belief that their expectations will never be met.
  • Feeling that those around them and society itself are judging them for their apparent failure.
  • Anxiety accompanied by social comparison. They contrast their achievements and life with the environment or what they see on social media.
  • Ruminating thoughts. For instance “I’m not where I want to be” “I haven’t achieved what I expected” “I’m a disappointment to my family” or “Everyone else has achieved more than me”.
  • Physical symptoms. For example, tiredness, muscle tension, headaches, tachycardia, digestive disorders, sleep problems, changes in diet, etc.
  • If it’s prolonged over time and feelings of hopelessness are persistent, there’s a risk of milestone anxiety leading to other disorders. In this respect, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA) conducted a study. It studied the comorbidity between anxiety and depression.

The feeling that we’re not meeting our expectations is an increasingly common phenomenon seen in psychological therapy.

The origins of milestone anxiety

Much of the psychological suffering of the human being is a direct consequence of the context that contains and conditions them. Indeed, we all possess better or worse tools to handle adversity.

However, today, young people are suffering more than ever from the effects of a society that hinders their independence and self-realization. Here are some of the aspects that affect the appearance of anxiety due to vital pressure:

  • Criticism for not having a job or stable partner and children.
  • Self-demand. Punishing themselves with the idea that they should’ve already achieved certain milestones.
  • Internalizing the narratives of their family and society regarding what they should be achieving in each phase of the life cycle. When they don’t obtain these achievements, they suffer.
  • Social media. This digital showcase only shows the brightest and best versions of everyone. Young people only have to do a little scrolling on Instagram or Tik Tok to assume that everyone is more successful and happy than them. This severely affects their mental health.
  • Social comparison. Research published in the journal, Current Psychology details the anguish felt for not being able to meet certain social standards. It claims we all want to be like other people and achieve the same. Consequently, when we don’t achieve it, we build ourselves prisons of anxiety.

Strategies for managing milestone anxiety

Milestone anxiety is one of the most frequent reasons for individuals under the age of 40 to consult a psychologist. It isn’t easy to deal with these feelings of failure and the idea that society is putting up numerous obstacles to hinder their own development and personal fulfillment. So, what can be done in these situations? Here’s some advice if you’re suffering from this kind of anxiety.

Rest, develop new perspectives, and press the reset button

Excessive anxiety prevents you from thinking clearly and reflectively. You’ll find it difficult to feel better if your mind is attacking you as if it’s your worst enemy. In this context, ideally, you should give yourself a few days of rest and social and technological disconnection. Indeed, being alone is useful for working on the ideas we’re going to suggest:

  • Reformulate your goals. This will allow you to start the engine of new hope.
  • Think about some life changes. Sometimes, a small variation of your routine is all you need to discover new incentives.
  • Look at your current life in perspective. Not having achieved what you want doesn’t make you a failure. Look back and remember that you’ve been successful in many areas in the past.

Practice self-compassion

It’s time to stop speaking badly and devaluing yourself. You must respect yourself in the same way as you would your best friend. Modify your internal dialogue. Be more empathetic, understanding, and affectionate toward yourself. Self-compassion is a great psychological resource to employ when you feel anxious and discouraged.

One key of reducing milestone anxiety is to stop comparing yourself with others and be more compassionate with yourself.

Meditate on your missed milestones: are they really that important?

Sometimes, the goals you set for yourself might not even be yours. They’re often set for you by society or your family. Reflect on what you haven’t achieved and assess if you really need it to be happy. Maybe you can replace that milestone with another more motivating one. For example, you might not own a house, but perhaps what you really want right now is to travel and lead a more nomadic life.

Acceptance and commitment therapy

If you find it impossible to handle milestone anxiety on your own, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help. This approach will help you create a more meaningful life by teaching you how to take on the most difficult or adverse areas of your life.

This therapy works on values and self-discovery. It’ll offer you tools so you can accept what you can’t control and develop a more empowering vision of yourself. Without a doubt, it’s a really useful therapy in cases of milestone anxiety.

Make changes and seek support

Finally, if you’re currently going through this experience and the feeling persists that you haven’t reached where you want to be, don’t hesitate to make changes and lean on the people around you.

You must bear in mind that you’re not alone, nor are you the only one to be suffering from this kind of anxiety. At some point, your reality will change and you’ll start moving in the desired direction.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.