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“Why does life feel so much harder in the 30’s and 40’s?” (part two)

“Why does life feel so much harder in the 30's and 40's?” (part two) | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

Two weeks ago, I shared the first part of this two-part essay with you.

In it, we explored why and how life in the 30’s and 40’s may feel harder for a certain segment of the population: those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds.

We explored how and why coming from a relational trauma background can create cracks in the proverbial foundations of our lives in a way that someone from a non-trauma background may not have to cope with.

“Why does life feel so much harder in the 30's and 40's?” (part two) | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

“Why does life feel so much harder in the 30’s and 40’s?” (part two)

We also explored how and why those cracks may be unfelt and unknown for some time in adolescence and young adulthood but how they begin to be more visible and more known when an individual arrives into their 30’s and 40’s and begins to experience the pressures of the passage of time and common developmental milestones of these decades.

In today’s essay, the second in the series, we’ll explore two examples that make concrete this abstract idea of how faulty cracks begin to show in the 30’s and 40’s and, importantly, we’ll also explore how it’s possible to fix cracks in faulty foundations and why it’s so important to do so.

And, very importantly, I want you to know that if you live here in California, me and my team at my boutique therapy center – Evergreen Counseling – are proverbial foundation repair experts. 

Working with individuals who come from relational trauma histories is what we do all day, every day and so if you identify with any piece of this two-part article series and you live in either California (or Florida since some of us, myself included, are licensed there, too), we would be honored to be of support to you personally.

So all of this to say, please feel free to email me personally if you would like some expert support after reading this essay.

Examples of how faulty foundations may be tested in the 30’s and 40’s.

We’ve been talking metaphorically and abstractly about proverbial foundations and proverbial houses, cracks and stress tests so let me share some examples of what this can look like.

Imagine, if you will, a little girl who had a father with Anti Social Personality Disorder and a depressed mother prone to suicide attempts (and near-constant suicidal ideation). 

Raised by personality and mood-disordered parents, this little girl would have had a childhood colored by relational trauma.

Her lived experience in childhood would, of course, have taught her that relationships are not safe and, in fact, could be downright dangerous. 

For this young girl, it would be wise and self-preserving of her, then, to withdraw from relationships (especially her parents but likely others, too) to protect herself and get through childhood and adolescence as unscathed as possible. 

She would have learned (unconsciously) introjects and beliefs such as, “Relationship = danger.” Or, “Relationships are not safe.” And perhaps, “I am safe if I am by myself. Other people can’t be trusted.”

And so she develops an attachment wound. 

She develops avoidant attachment beliefs and behaviors as a protective function.

Again, this makes perfect sense given the conditions she experienced. 

So let’s say she ages up through childhood and into middle school and high school. 

In high school, she may be lonely watching her friends and classmates date, go to parties on the weekend and make plans together, but still, she doesn’t want it (relationships, romantic or platonic) enough to risk getting hurt by doing what they do.

And in high school, she doesn’t yet feel urgency around challenging her avoidant attachment patterns. 

She’s just working her butt off in school to graduate and get the hell away from home. 

But flash forward several decades and now this young woman is 34 and while she’s professionally and financially successful, she’s now feeling an acute longing to be in a long-term romantic partnership and have a meaningful life outside of work. 

She wants a life partner. 

She’s not sure if she wants children – she wants the relationship first – but she’s also acutely aware of the biological dwindling of time to make that choice, too.

But there’s a problem: She doesn’t know how to find and date and be with a functional, healthy partner. She doesn’t even know what this means.

She’s never lived with anyone and can’t imagine letting someone see her when she’s sad or in those times when depression visits her.

Also, in her heart, she truly doesn’t believe that she can be loved given her past and “how broken” she feels coming from such a “messed up” family.

This woman’s arrival into her 30’s and the attendant pressure of the developmental milestones of this decade have forced her to confront the cracks in her proverbial faulty foundation in a way that she didn’t necessarily have to in prior decades.

She’s starting to feel the structure of her proverbial house of life sway more on the faulty foundation now that she’s older. 

Life feels like a mystery. She feels acutely that everyone else seems to have been handed the proverbial “Handbook to Life” instead of her. 

Her life feels hard.

Now let’s imagine another example where the cracks in the proverbial foundation are felt more acutely in the 30’s and 40’s.

Imagine a young girl who was raised by one mother with generalized anxiety disorder that manifested into critical outbursts towards her and engulfing behaviors, and another mom that was a functional alcoholic but who sometimes drove the family in the car under the influence, terrifying the little girl.

This little girl, as with the other example, would have experienced relational trauma.

In the wake of a lack of relational safety in her home, this young girl developed hypoarousal and “freeze” responses within her autonomic nervous system when she’s outside her window of tolerance. 

When confronted with perceived or actual danger or risk, instead of having her limbic system “stay online” to cope with the stress, she shuts down. She freezes. She withdraws. 

This manifests as dissociation and behaviors that help keep her “numb” and “checked out” – heavy cannabis use. 

Gaming through the night at the expense of her homework and sleep. 

“Shrinking and not taking up space” at home and at school to avoid “making herself a target” with either of her moms or her disappointed teachers.

So she struggles through high school. She barely graduates. 

Despite her low grades, she tries out community college but has a hard time self-organizing because each time she’s confronted with stressors (picking courses, essay deadlines, etc) she freezes and reverts to her dissociative coping mechanism. 

At this point in her life as a young adult, the proverbial single-story house on her faulty foundation isn’t exactly sound, but it’s not (proverbially speaking) detrimentally collapsing (yet) either.

So this young woman grows up and she arrives into her 30’s having patchworked together a series of jobs to get by, to pay her bills, to make her way through life.

In each job, though, she struggled with any and all forms of self-advocating, of taking of space and asserting her worth, and this has had negative consequences in her performance reviews. 

She hasn’t been given or asked for a raise in seven years across her jobs and is starting to feel the building financial pressures of inflation and not being able to competitively provide well for herself in her chosen urban environment in a way that she simply didn’t feel in her 20’s. 

She dearly wants to buy a home and maybe even have a family someday but she has not a clue how she’ll financially afford either dream.

She feels chronically underemployed but is easily flooded and overwhelmed when thinking about changing her circumstances or asking for opportunities in her current work environment.

Now, later in her life in her 30’s and 40’s, she’s starting to feel the cost of the cracks in her faulty foundation.

And her life feels harder now.

And these are two examples of an endless variety of ways cracks in faulty foundations might begin to reveal themselves as we age into the 30’s and 40’s and are confronted with the passage and pressures of time and developmental milestones we need and want to meet.

If your proverbial house of life is swaying in your 30’s and 40’s, how do you fix it?

I want to suggest that while it can feel quite painful and be hard to confront and feel the proverbial cracks in your proverbial foundation and recognize that these cracks are a result of coming from a relational trauma history, it is also a very, very good thing to begin to see and recognize this all.

Why? Because when we feel and see the cracks in our proverbial foundations more clearly, it shows us the work that needs to be done in order to help turn our lives around.

Analogously, when you see the numbers on your cholesterol test come back, it may be painful but you also now know what you’re working with and what interventions you may need to take in order to get yourself to a healthier, less dire place.

It may be hard to see ourselves reflected in the phrase “relational trauma” or to imagine that unresolved childhood trauma is part of why life is feeling so challenging now that you’re an adult, but, hard and painful though it may be, it also gives you an opportunity to seek out the supports and interventions that can help you finally resolve the trauma, fix the cracks in the faulty foundation so to speak. 

And is it possible to fix the cracks in faulty foundations when we come from relational trauma backgrounds? 

Yes. Absolutely. I believe this with every cell in my body because it’s my own life story and it’s my life’s work as a trauma therapist, boutique trauma therapy center founder, mental health writer, and psychoeducational course creator.

So what are those interventions for faulty foundations stemming from relational trauma backgrounds? To name a few:

  • Reparative relational experiences, ideally through a safe, trusted, attuned, and caring relational psychotherapist who can support you in developing skills and behaviors you may have developmentally missed out on.
  • Brain-based psychotherapies such as EMDR that literally require the neural pathways of your brain, reducing distress from unresolved trauma memories and developing and strengthening new neural pathways to support more functional beliefs and behaviors.
  • Somatic psychotherapies that allow a mental health clinician to help identify and resolve your symptoms even (and especially) when no memories of any abuse or neglect may be consciously present.
  • And finally, psychoeducation. Articles like this one (and any of the 175+ other essays on my blog) that can help you see yourself and your reality more clearly so that you feel “less crazy and broken” for having such a hard time and instead help you see that the hardness you feel is a result not only of the inherent hardness of life but also as a result of your personal history. 

Why bother doing this hard work? Why fix the foundation now?

We do the work of fixing the cracks in our faulty foundations because, in the words of the artist Terri St. Cloud

“She could never go back and make some of the details pretty. All she could do is move forward and make the whole beautiful.”

In your 30’s and 40’s (and in every decade after) there is still time to stabilize and make more structurally sound the house of your life.

There is still time to learn how to be with your feelings and not use potentially destructive and maladaptive behaviors to numb them out.

There is still time to learn what boundaries are and how to assert them so you can keep yourself safe and respect others around you. 

There is still time to learn what healthy communication looks like and recognize when you’re at the receiving end of unhealthy communication

There is still time to learn how to be in relationship with others, learn how to recognize a healthy relationship, tolerate its vulnerability of it, and be a good friend, partner, and parent to others.

There is still time to learn how to genuinely like and love and respect yourself and how to speak to yourself so very kindly. So much so that abusive, dysfunctional people stay miles away from you because they know you won’t tolerate their behavior.

There is still time to learn how to assert your needs and wants in the world so that you can have your exterior circumstances more closely resemble the regard you have for yourself internally.

There is still time to love and be loved. To repair relationships that may have been negatively impacted by the cracks in your foundation.

There is still time to make different choices that will reduce pain in your day to day life once you start to see your choices and options more clearly. There is time to build a beautiful adulthood for yourself.

There is still time to fix the cracks in the faulty foundation and create a more fulfilling life, a more structurally sound house of life for yourself.

So please hear me: whether you’re in your 30’s or 40’s (or any decade on either side) it is never too late to do the relational trauma recovery work that might make your life feel better, more connected, and more enlivened.

As the famed American psychiatrist, trauma researcher, and mental health author Judith Lewis Hermann, MD once said in the halls of her training clinic in Massachusetts (and I paraphrase from the training I heard this quoted in): 

“It’s very sad that our patients got robbed of their childhoods. It would be a tragedy if they were robbed of their adulthood, too.”

If you identified with this series of essays, if you identify with coming from a relational trauma background and have an inkling that the particular kind of hardness you’re experiencing in your life (whether you’re in your 30’s or 40’s or any other age) is a result of coming from this kind of background, my team of trauma therapists and I would be honored to support you so that you don’t experience being robbed of your adulthood.

Please feel free to email me personally if you live in California or Florida and you would like additional support.

And, very importantly, please remember that no matter where you’re starting from, change is possible. 

And you’re absolutely worthy of the help and support it may take to make that change.

Until next time, please take such good care of yourself. 

Warmly, Annie

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