On Millennials Discovering Our “Acceptable” Adult Selves

A preoccupation among millennials is determining when we are/how to be an adult. For as long as I can remember, my friends and I have been asking each other when we will become a man or woman and when we’re an adult. Tumblr, a website popularized by millennials, has a plethora of posts talking about “adulting” and not being ready for it. We’re often accused about being “boomerang” children who return home because we’re incapable of being mature adults and simply wish to prolong our “extended childhood” as far as possible.

Of course, the question is “why.” Why are we so preoccupied with figuring out when we’re an adult? Why is it so difficult for us to own our adulthood? Why are we anxious about our ability to be an adult, and why do we often suffer from “imposter syndrome” – thinking we don’t belong in a situation or job?

Some would claim entitlement. They would say that we feel entitled to our juvenility, entitled to avoiding our responsibilities, and entitled to our parents’ income and assets. That we simply don’t want to become adults, which is a desire so deeply imbedded into our psyches that, even if we profess the opposite, we still self-sabotage and are essentially incapable of following through.

I have another theory. I believe that our trouble with claiming adulthood is not based on immaturity but rather a deeply held belief that we simply cannot be adults because we think we are fundamentally unsuited to be ones. And I believe this belief comes from our parents and other authority figures.

Before I go on, I would just like to stress that I am not talking to or about people who are perfectly amenable to claiming adulthood. I am not referencing those who can say without a trace of irony, “I’m a functioning adult.” I am not referencing those who aren’t consumed with anxiety when talking with coworkers, worried that they will say something immature or wrong. I am not referencing those who can speak openly about their likes or dislikes. I am referencing those, like myself, who go through the world of adulthood constantly worried that they will say something “unacceptable” and betray their own ineptitude at being an adult. I am speaking to those who are afraid others will accuse them of saying or doing things that an adult wouldn’t do. For everyone else, feel free to go about your day.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

First, let’s establish what a parent’s job is. What are they required to do to successfully raise a child? The first answer usually encompasses one’s basic needs: food and shelter with safety an inherent part of that answer. More detailed answers will move onto loving unconditionally, making sure the child goes to church, always accepting them, and teaching them right and wrong. While all of those are good (though I might quibble a bit at the church answer), they don’t include what is the most important quality for a child to turn from a comfortable, happy child into a well-functioning adult: self-actualization.

Self-actualization involves realizing personal potential and self-fulfillment and seeking personal growth and peak experiences. It is when you stop basing your understanding of yourself on what other people tell you and instead base it on what you as a person find satisfactory. Essentially, it is when you stop turning to an authority figure every time you do something to see if what you did is right, wrong, disreputable, worthy of praise, etc.

Lacking self-actualization is what prevents you from being a functioning, self-assured adult. Even if you have friends and family whom you love reciprocally or seem to exhibit independence, self-respect, and self-confidence, if you constantly need approval from another person to determine if what you’re doing is good or not, you are not really functioning. Instead, you’re a child playacting in an adult’s body.

This is where millennials’ anxiety over not being the correct kind of adult or an imposter stems from. Even as our parents were giving us the latest technologies, giving us freedom through divorce and working extra hours, handing out trophies for just attempting things, and reading numerous books on how to “correctly” parent a child, they still weren’t allowing us to function as individuals. They would instead encourage us to solve our problems by turning to them or other authority figures, and they would police our efforts by constantly reminding us that failure could result in a terrible career choice (such as working at McDonalds) and that, regardless of our personal proclivities, we had to go to college to succeed. After achieving these milestones, non-millennials would undermine our efforts by refusing to hire us, refusing to pay us (either at all or a livable wage), and refusing to take our complaints and suggestions seriously. As a result, we’ve come to understand that we lack power as a group and that we simply don’t understand what it means to be an adult – hence, our anxiety.

The problem is further compounded when, like me, you come from domineering, controlling, and/or hypercritical parents. These are the parents who are constantly telling you how to dress, how to talk, how to perform certain actions, who to befriend, how to befriend them, and what to think and who, despite your best efforts, always find fault with what you do. According to The Emotionally Abusive Relationship by Beverly Engel, “Children are totally dependent on their parents, and so a hypercritical parent continually threatens his or her child’s sense of security. This, in turn, has a tremendous effect on a child’s developing sense of self. This continual criticism can be so emotionally damaging to a child that it may take a lifetime to overcome” (71). So imagine being a child and every time you do something, regardless of if it’s dangerous or just unconventional, your parent tells you, “That’s not the right way to act. That’s not what a mature adult would do.” Imagine hearing that phrase or some variation of it over and over again for years – is it any wonder that when that child becomes an adult they are anxious over whether or not they’re behaving acceptably?

When you’re in an environment with other like-minded and like-aged individuals, it is easier to ignore that voice. The mere proximity of others your age is a tremendous help because you can physically see what is permissible at that age. You can see how no one looks twice at the faux-hawk or purple hair or picketing on the green for political prisoners or doing your assignments late. You can understand that, unless you are physically hurting someone else, anything is permissible. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences for your actions – it simply means you won’t be judged “unacceptable” for just existing. And it is a great comfort.

However, once you enter the work force, the voice is likely to come back. Some people will be much older, more experienced, better connected, or more confident than you, and you will judge your actions and intentions based on theirs. You will worry about following the dress code and avoiding an HR call-up for inappropriate behavior. You will police not just your dress and physical presentation but also your voice and opinions. You will worry that you’ll betray yourself, acting immature or naive or unacceptable, and you’ll be quieter and more constrained than you are wont to be. And you will fear being called out and ridiculed.

Here is something you need to remember: if you are an adult, whatever you are saying, doing, or wearing is acceptable for an adult. You are an acceptable adult. Adults are not required to eat bran serial, dress in dark hues, only listen to NPR, and only read the financial section of the newspaper. They can shave part of their heads, piece their nipples, tattoo Homer Simpson on their bicep, stay up until 3:00am on a work night playing Dungeons & Dragons, go to a One Direction concert alone, and squeal with joy when spotting their favorite author across the convention hall. Doing any or all of those things does not revoke their “Adult Card.” It does not make them unacceptable, juvenile, or inappropriate. It simply makes them who they are.

As millennials we need to shake off the judgmental authoritarian voice that dogs our best efforts. We need to banish the Danny Tanners telling us that we have to come to adults when we encounter a problem. We need to avoid those who would tell us that a “responsible adult” doesn’t do this or that. We need to understand that being judged as freaks because of our clothes or hair is a reflection of a different time of societal acceptance and not an immutable standard. We need to know that because of our age, we are adults, and that is the only thing required to make us an acceptable one. And that anyone who says otherwise is just being a butt.

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