Deep breath and repeat: Life is not a race.
Early in the film Bridesmaids, in a scene that sets the comedy’s plot in motion, Maya Rudolph’s Lillian tells Kristen Wiig’s Annie she’s gotten engaged. Struggling to hide her shock at her best friend’s news, Annie alternates pained exclamations of “Oh my god!” with “What is happeningggg?”
But my favorite moment comes just after, when Lillian picks up a phone call from her fiance. “She’s so happy!” Lillian tells him, to which Annie cheerfully blurts, “No, I’m not!”
When I first watched this scene seven years ago, I let out the kind of cathartic laugh that comes from deep recognition. At the time, nearly all of my high school and college friends were married—something I very much wanted to be—and I was still single. I had found myself sitting where Annie sat over and over again, greeting engaged friends with a heart full of joy, yes, but also an uncomfortable mix of sadness, despair, worry, and embarrassment.
The scene validated a feeling I’d grappled with whenever friends hit major life milestones: That I was somehow “falling behind.”
In the years since, I’ve learned how very common this feeling is—and the shame it can bring—among women. And yet, it’s rarely openly discussed. (The thing about shame is it makes you want to hide.) “Women have a tremendous stake in being empathic and supportive,” Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., a therapist in Manhattan and author of the new book I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives, tells Health. “And we feel like these conflict-ridden feelings are sort of the opposite of that, so we go out of our way not to even let ourselves know we have these feelings.”
So what’s really fueling the fear so many women have that we are falling behind, or being left behind? And how can we navigate this feeling so it doesn’t wreak havoc on our well-being? Barth and other experts in psychology and female friendship provided some insight and advice—just in case you find yourself on the verge of a bridal shower meltdown this spring.
Friends are the new family
With more women getting married later or not at all and choosing to have kids later or by themselves or not at all, the role of our friends is arguably more important than ever before. As Rebecca Traister writes in her bestselling book All the Single Ladies, today, women find themselves “shaping their identities, dreams and goals not necessarily in tandem with a man or within a traditional family structure, but instead alongside other women. Their friends.”
So when we sense a threat to our friendships—whether it’s the arrival of a partner or child who might cut into time together or a move to the other side of town—the experience can feel as destabilizing as a threat to our romantic or family relationships, says Barth, or any other bedrock of our life.
We like being the same as our friends
Throughout high school and college, our lives and our friends’ lives often look pretty similar, which can be comforting. When a friend can relate to what you’re going through, you might feel less alone. This explains why friends will reach for phrases like The same thing happened to me and I know just what you mean, Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of last year’s You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, tells Health. But when our friends’ lives start to diverge from ours, it’s natural to feel everything from a sense of abandonment and inadequacy.
We like being part of a group
While some women enjoy flying solo, many value being part of a friend group—whether it’s two- or ten-people strong. They also fear being rejected from the group, says Tannen, a phenomenon she dubs FOBLO (fear of being left out) and FOGKO (fear of getting kicked out).
“When your friend group seems to be achieving something that happens to be something you actually kind of want, I think the frustration of ‘I’m not getting what I want’ is intensified” by this fear, she says. “It’s like two scary things overlapping and coinciding.”
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But here’s the thing—falling behind is an illusion
When we’re young, we tend to think of life linearly, but reality is much more convoluted. Simply getting married, having children, buying a house, getting a big promotion—whatever the milestone may be—doesn’t signify happiness or life satisfaction.
“What does it really mean, falling behind?” asks Barth. “It’s not a race. And that’s part of the problem. You’re pursuing your life path, and it’s not going to be the same as anybody else’s.”
Resist the comparison game
It’s human nature to examine how our lives stack up against those of the people we know, but doing so rarely makes us happy, says Jenny Taitz, Psy.D., a therapist, clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at UCLA, and author of the book How to Be Single and Happy.
“Especially in this time of social media, there’s such a pull to compare and try to ‘keep up,’” Taitz tells Health. But remember, “your sense of other people’s joys in their life”—particularly based on Facebook or Instagram—“are inherently imprecise.”
Plus, everyone feels like they’re falling behind on something, she says. “If you asked an auditorium of a thousand people do you feel like you’re behind in your life? almost everyone would raise their hands,” Taitz adds. “Maybe certain people would say personally, certain people professionally, other people with their health goals. You know, it’s just part of being human.”
The key to preventing these feelings from “holding us hostage,” she says, is to show self-compassion—which research suggests is closely linked with motivation. One way to do this is by simply accepting that of course you want what someone else has, and that’s okay! “You really need to be nice to yourself,” she adds.
Expand your friend group
As our lives grow and evolve, the circle of friends we spend time with will do the same. “I think we have this fantasy that old friends are the true friends, and that’s not true,” says Barth, who suggests making an effort to meet new friends with each new life stage. “Work friends are really important friends,” she adds. “People sometimes put them down, but work friends are people who are doing what you’re doing.” They might understand things about your life that your old friends won’t.
But what if you still feel behind?
Here’s the bottom line: Fixating on what you don’t have isn’t going to make you feel any better. What will make you feel better, says Taitz, along with being kind to yourself, is cultivating a meaningful life filled with people and work and activities that make you happy.
“The biggest joy handicap is assuming that, somehow, there’s a perfect way to be happy that’s out of reach right now,” she says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. But perceiving that you’re falling behind is losing this moment, and that’s actually going to hold you back.”
Her advice? “A good remedy for getting out of your head is jumping into your life.”