On Adulting

picture of a house with a garden in front
Find yourself wondering how good you are at “adulting”? How do you gauge your own progress in the world of grownups? Some practical thoughts On Adulting.

The other day, I made a comment to a friend that my cat, Loomi, sometimes doesn’t “cat” very well. It was a reference to her dog-like behavior involving being greeted at the door by her, her affectionate mannerisms and occasional eagerness to please, and her anticipatory head drop as she looks down at the ground when she sees one of humans pick up the laser pen. She’s got “dog” down pat, and only when I hear her tearing around the house in a manic romp do I remember that she’s “catting” as well.

I expect strange behavior from cats. They are, after all, space aliens who have decided to inhabit cute, furry bodies in order to study human nature. [j/k]. When it comes to people, however, I find it equally interesting that some of them tell me they aren’t very good at “adulting”. What is that all about?

Ever since the gerund “adulting” entered mainstream conversation, I’ve been more surprised not by its appearance, but by who has taken it most to heart. If you assume it has been taken more seriously by Millennials, think again! The age group that has the most to gain by learning the skills of adulting –and the most to lose for having not learned those skills — are currently in their late 30’s through early 50’s.

If you’re in that age group, fear not. What I’d like to share On Adulting is helpful for all age groups, yet this brief post is particularly important for you. Read on.

I am completely aware that the intention of author and journalist Kelly Williams Brown, author of the and her book of 468 easy(ish) steps, is to provide a light and humorous “how-to” guide for the younger set to traverse the wild saharan desert of being a real adult.

Additionally, Anna Borges’ compilation of shaming cartoons and pictures captures the idea that all those who don’t have these “adult life skillz” down would recognize their suckiness in the photos (take a look at #21!). And I am pretty sure that anyone over 25 years of age would chuckle, because at some point you and I have done, felt, or seen at least 75% of these examples. I saw a good amount of these in college and post college life; they are difficult to wipe from my memory after all these years!

Yet it is a completely different experience when  the line, “I’m just not good at adulting” comes from someone who is desperately aware that the last decade was spent declaring that they would be an adult, and the new decade is now staring them in the face with the awful recognition that pretty much nothing has changed.

Well, ouch!

Perhaps this person is you. Perhaps it is someone you know and love. If you had to nail it down to just ten indicators of “adulting”, what would they be? If you’re curious, write down your Top 10 on a separate piece of paper, and then compare them to my short list, below.

Unlike Brown’s book, I’m not providing any how-to’s here. Instead, I’d like to focus on the “what” – that is, defining the items that lead you to understand you are good (or improving) at adulting. From there, you can piece together your strategy by just picking one to focus on in 2016.

You’re Good At Adulting When:

#1. You know how to make and implement a budget to spend within your means and save for a rainy day, invest money, help others, and have a retirement plan.

#2. You know how to feed and nourish yourself, another person, a child, and/or a sick person or someone with a terminal illness.

#3. You make and keep all routine health care visits (immunizations and vaccines, physical exams, and routine medical and dental check ups for yourself and anyone you are responsible for (including pets), and you have action plans for maintaining a functional level of fitness, mobility, and mental wellness. This usually involves some kind of organizing system.

#4. You have and execute a schedule for basic weekly home functions, such as cleaning, grocery shopping, taking out the garbage, paying bills, doing laundry, and outdoor home and garden care. This also involves some kind of organizing system.

#5. You seek and land (or create!) work that supports the lifestyle you either choose or you accept. If you don’t like your job, you do something proactive about it (which does not include passive aggressive ranting on a blog no one knows about).

#6. You don’t “ghost” people; that is, when conflict happens in relationship, you don’t run away (unless you are in physical danger).

#7. You have at least one useful skill that has nothing to do with your current line of work, such as cooking, fixing machines, electrical wiring, repairing watches (and you’re name isn’t Sylar), landscaping/gardening, working with computers, building furniture, etc.

#8. You mean what you say, and people can trust your thoughtful words. In other words, your word is your bond.

#9. You develop a respect for the value of human life and the value of things and property. People know you as a loving person.

#10. You have the capability and desire to expand your circle of care to something bigger than yourself, such as a charity, cause, or bigger purpose in life.

What did not make my list: having a huge network or a large number of friends. I’ve found that friendships are needed for people to accomplish some of their adulting tasks, yet one didn’t need a large number to accomplish this if they have close family connections or were not isolated.

I would add one more, but then it would be an 11-point list, and that’s not as tidy as a 10-point list! For the record, I would add that you’re  good at adulting when you’ve done some reflection, and possibly already some planning depending on your age and health, on death and preparations for the end of your life. However, if we’re looking at someone in their 20’s and trying to use it as a measure of how adult s/he is, these ten items will give you a functional assessment of a young person’s adulting skillz.

And what if you’re not in your twenties, but a decade or two older?

What if you’re in your late thirties, forties, and yes, even fifties, you’re reading this post, and you’re having one of those, “Come to Jesus!” moments?  Maybe you’ve gotten this far by hiding the energy bills in a drawer, you blew off your neighbors when they complained about how the weeds on your side of the fence are stick out on their side of the fence, and you still don’t know how to shop for groceries once a week and have no wilted vegetables and more than ketchup and mustard for dinner on Day Six.

And sometimes, there is a delay in learning the skills of adulting because you formed a partnership with someone early in life, and now that partner is gone (divorce, death, or debilitating illness). You can wake up to a realization that if you do not take the time to learn the skillz of adulting, you’re in a no-man’s land between childhood and grownups, and it is so not like being a teenager. Those around you are less understanding and accommodating

Or what if it’s more about an acknowledgement of not wishing to gain mastery at anything in order to call the world to take care of you? Can you be held accountable for your ailing health if you claim that someone else always took care of those things — perhaps it was your mother, your wife, or another person who was good at such things? Can you be expected to go out and find a job if you have difficulty balancing a checkbook (or reading your bank statement on a weekly basis from an online statement)?

The answer is: Yes, you can be held accountable for what you do and don’t do, know, and act upon.

So Now What?

You have a list of things that describe what adulting looks like. And you have an idea of which ones you’re pretty good at, and which ones could use some attention and focus. Great!

Rather than going point-by-point through these ten items, here’s my “Why behind the What”. I formulated these ten points off of a mental checklist I use to help me understand how functional an adult is in a real-world setting, something  beyond a pencil-and-paper test with an associated GAF score. Rather than seeing it as a way to negatively judge people by coming up with a number, I see each item as a range of function so I can understand my client’s world, see where he or she is struggling, and ask about what ails and what works.

I look for natural strengths and talents, and I’m quick to point out what appears to be working in the client’s best interests. It’s not likely I would ever develop an “adulting” score; the idea is not to experience shame, but to recognize both reality (what you are today in my current framework) and potential (what you are capable of reaching towards, with support and new skills).

If you’re in the that late 30’s to early 50’s age group — well outside the expanded age of Emerging Adulthood — and you’re seeing some glaring pieces missing in your adulting world, it’s not too late to learn. You have the option to do some homework by reading up about those skill areas, hire a counselor to help you explore how you got here, and/or hire a coach to help connect the dots in strategizing the “how-to” in getting those skillz in place in your everyday life.

If you’re in the younger set — and considered well within the Emerging Adulthood age (18 – 35) — this is your time to assess your attitude about embracing the grown up world that can sometimes feel strangely exciting and scary at the same time. I’ve watched many a client take on challenges that they never thought they’d even want to do at first, and then be transformed in the process as they gain a sense of mastery and accomplishment.

Happy Adulting!

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, AIP Coach and PN1-NC, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 30+ years in healthcare (22+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is a two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018); she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for 100 Mile trail races and a backyard ultra. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, camping under the stars, and cooking real food.

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