Struggling for Significance

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

— Robert Browning

I’ve found that young adults – especially some of the young men I work with – who seek help with depression often have a lot of difficulty that involves feeling that they can’t achieve the things that they wish they could in life. They know that it’s not realistic to hope they can be famous, financially independent, or sometimes even just well-liked. Most of us have struggled with this kind of dilemma, because young adulthood is one of the times of life when our reach almost always exceeds our grasp.

Stephen King talks about “being nineteen” in the introduction to the Dark Tower series. He describes it as a time when a young man is “Drinkin’ TNT and smokin’ dynamite,” (with a nod to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, I would imagine); and when he feels on top of the world and invulnerable. It’s the time before the “mean patrol boy” of middle age takes you aside and sets you straight. King looks back on that time as one of confidence and bravery – sometimes unrealistic and even stupid, but mostly optimistic. That energy and optimism carries people through the frustrations of early adulthood without becoming discouraged.

But, unfortunately, it’s not hard to get discouraged. A lot of people I’ve worked with in therapy have had experiences in their younger lives that set them up for a sense of inadequacy in the face of the task that Alfred Adler called “striving for significance.” It could be abuse, impossbly high standards from parents or other family members, school or learning problems, or (paradoxically) being pampered. A child who is put down, and a child who has everything done for him or her, can both end up with much the same sense of inadequacy.

It’s often hard for someone in this stage of life to put into words what they’re feeling inadequate about. Adler’s Individual Psychology gives us the best idea of what it is – the striving for significance. The “fictional final goal” of a person’s life can take many forms and can change through life, but at its most basic it means trying to feel like “somebody.” That may mean being liked, it may mean accomplishing things, or it may mean being successful. It may mean being the best at something, or being the center of attention, or it may mean having the coolest stuff. Eventually, it has to mean doing something that’s significant and being appreciated for it by someone – and feeling good about yourself.

I agree with Adler’s assertion that it’s not what a person has that’s important, but what use a person makes of it. This can mean relationships, abilities, talents, accomplishments, or possessions. A person will judge himself or herself by the use to which these are put, and a person’s value to others is a central component of that use. Adler considered behaviors and values as either socially useful or socially useless. Useful means making a contribution somehow. This does not necessarily mean being charitable or selfless. It might mean selling a cool product or telling a good joke. But useless usually means selfish, destructive, exploitative, or demeaning, or else withdrawn and fearful (or avoidant, in the language of psychiatry and psychology).James Thurber's Illustration from "Excelsior"

So the goals we set for ourselves need to be realistic and idealistic at the same time. We need to set them high enough to move ourselves out of our comfort zone, but not so high that we become discouraged and feel like giving up. The goals we set for ourselves need to be a little higher than what we can easily accomplish. Like an exercise routine, it needs to be a little challenging. But it also needs to be realistic, and contain a sense of acceptance that we all have a lot in common.

It’s hard to graduate from school and get a job that sets us for life. Often, we must struggle to put up with a first (and second, and third) job that might be somewhat demeaning, boring, or frustrating. You may have had one of those jobs. One of mine was shoveling metal chips and machining fluid out of the bottoms of machines in a factory that made railroad slack adjusters. My first job as a married man was in an inpatient psychiatric unit. Sometimes I had to restrain agitated patients, and sometimes I had to call bingo games. I guess you could call those jobs “character builders,” but they were valuable even though unpleasant at times. Putting up with that kind of work – like putting up with the frustrations and disappointments of our first relationships – is easier when you have a solid sense of being good enough. Or, at least, having a sense that you’re on the road to being good enough. Onward and upward.

But a young adult who feels basically discouraged won’t have the inner resources to deal with and get past those early challenges. Instead, he or she may avoid them. Sometimes this is done by focusing on the bad things about the situation being avoided (the classic “sour grapes” defense mechanism).

Discouraged individuals may have standards (for themselves and for others) that are unrealistically high. At the same time, their view of their own abilities may be low. They may decide that it’s just not worth trying. Use or misuse of drugs or alcohol may serve as a way to provide distraction from the lack of fulfillment they feel.

It’s not easy to help young adults attain a perspective on life that preserves that balance of hope and realism, especially when they’ve grown up with experiences that have led to feelings of discouragement. Sometimes, that takes a while and a lot of support and exploration of feelings, experiences, thoughts, and beliefs. But it’s gratifying to see it happen.

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