We have received a fantastic response from readers writing to the email address at the bottom of the page, and I would like to offer advice on one of these enquiries each week. We start with 23-year-old Natalie (not her real name), who has created a healthy work/life balance for herself but writes, "My boyfriend, Sam, is only 24 but is already panicking about how he is going to afford a house, pay for school fees and is wondering if he should change his career path in order to meet his financial obligations. He is earning a reasonable amount, lives at home and has no bills to pay. I wish he could get a grip - he is obviously very stressed."
Step 1: Learn to let go
Natalie's natural concern for her boyfriend can only help him up to a point. With so little internal stability, demonstrated by Sam's anxiety about his lack of external solidity, reassurance will never be enough. The first step Natalie can take is to let go of her need for him to be stress free. We often feel in relationships that if we work a little harder then everything will turn out well. Yet sometimes the more we try, the worse things feel, because we are trying too hard, adding more pressure. Letting go of our need to "fix" things frees up space for something else to happen.
Step 2: Future imperfect
Sam is anxious about his future and his ability to cope with the responsibilities of adulthood. At 24, despite enjoying the benefits of living with his parents, he might be feeling that the clock is ticking and it's time for him to leave home. But he doesn't know how. Instead of breaking down this important but difficult step into smaller, manageable goals, he has catastrophised himself into an uncertain and frighteningly expensive future. His preoccupation with his perceived lack of money suggests he feels he has inadequate emotional resources to make the break by himself. Sam's escalatory negative thoughts about his future make separating from his parents appear impossible and Natalie's ability to get on with her own life in a balanced way perhaps makes him feel all the more uneasy about his ability to cope.
Step 3: Active listening
In giving up her need to fix things for Sam, Natalie might find she has more space to actively listen to his anxieties. Instead of offering "solutions", she could try reflecting back what he is saying, simply and without judgement. They will then be in a better position to notice when Sam's thinking spirals into negativity about his future. Natalie could also help him to come back to the present when his thoughts become catastrophic, by gently reminding him that everything is OK now and he has her support. In this way, Sam will gain clarity as to what the key issues are. He might even begin to see solutions for himself and feel more in control in planning his future.
Step 4: Set short-term goals
When faced with uncertainty about our future, we often overwhelm ourselves trying to find a "perfect" complete solution, rather than establishing short-term goals that will get us closer to where we want to be. The energy Sam expends worrying could be used to develop a plan where he sets realistic targets. For example, he might choose to save for a deposit so he can rent a flat with friends. He might give himself six months to prepare and save, identifying priorities and planning accordingly. This will give him time to prime himself emotionally by talking to Natalie and his friends about how it was for them when they left home. And, of course, talking to his parents about what the move will mean for all of them, what they will gain and what they might lose. Once he has made this key step into adulthood successfully, his self-confidence will grow and other challenges will feel less threatening and more manageable.
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