It’s Okay to Outgrow the Life You Thought You Wanted
How do we untether ourselves from the people we imagined we’d become?
Growing out of things is spun as a given: Old clothes that no longer fit or feel like you, jobs or schools, phases of life, living situations, habits. Growth is part of the plan, the part those of us lucky enough to get to grow up, and continue growing, go through.
That doesn’t mean parts of growth aren’t brutal, and complicated. While the obvious versions of growth — new phases, new moves, new beginnings — get a lot of airtime, what pops up less often is the inverse: What happens when you step into the life you’ve worked for, and realize it no longer feels as fulfilling as you imagined it would?
If growth itself is messy, outgrowing can feel like suddenly realizing your favorite sweatshirt is too tight and too constricting, something you once loved becoming a point of tension that no longer fits. There are guides for knowing when you’ve outgrown your partner or relationship, lists for determining whether you’ve outgrown your therapist, and even resources for knowing whether you’ve outgrown certain friendships. The concept that we’d outgrow old versions of ourselves isn’t new — in fact, it’s generally considered a positive: You grow out of old beliefs as your worldview expands; you grow out of habits or routines that no longer make sense for your life.
But there’s also a version where you get exactly what you want — a school, a job, a city, a specific friend group — and experience the sinking feeling that the life and self you imagined you wanted simply doesn’t click. We’re used to outgrowing things that no longer fit. What about when we outgrow everything we thought we were supposed to want?
People I spoke to while researching my book, An Ordinary Age, pointed to how deeply outgrowing what they thought they wanted impacted their sense of self. Someone had worked hard to make friends following college graduation, eventually finding themselves immersed in enough social circles and red solo cups for a lifetime, only to realize the way the friend group treated each other wasn’t something that brought good to their life. Lots of people talked about leaving jobs they’d assumed would change their lives, including someone who explained that she had never wanted “just a job;” she wanted work to feel meaningful. But when the stress of the nonstop job began impacting her physical health, she noticed how much she yearned to leave work at work. She described the sense of guilt and relief when she finally left, saying she’d worked so hard for something only to realize it didn’t fit the life she found herself wanting: downtime, mental space from labor, and to have an identity beyond a job — something everyone should be afforded, and too many workplaces make fundamentally impossible. “I think my dreams just changed,” she explained.
Outgrowing came in all different versions: Perfect-on-paper relationships left. Graduate programs stopped in the middle. Moves made to return somewhere someone never thought they’d end up, or to escape a place they never imagined leaving. Side hustle plans left undone. None of these things — contrary to the common narrative — were giving up, or giving in, or abandoning wildest dreams. They were changing dreams; they were growth, a sort I rarely heard talked about openly. Sometimes, learning what you don’t want might be as important as discovering what you do. That’s growing, too.
Often, there’s a desire to cling onto how we thought life should go, sometimes until it outweighs the reality of how it is going — what makes us happy, versus what we feel should; what is truly stimulating or fulfilling, versus what we’ve been told should be chased and sacrificed for. A question I ponder is: How do we untether ourselves from the people we imagined we’d become?
One short answer seems to be: embracing the people we are instead.
Our decisions — what choices we have, and who gets to make them — are always going to be impacted by our circumstances, resources, and time. It’s one thing to realize your dream job feels terrible, it’s quite another to be able to quit and not worry about paying rent. But renegotiating what we want with ourselves shouldn’t be an inherent taboo, a signal that we’ve ventured off track or away from the plan. In a way, it’s letting ourselves expand and shift as our circumstances or priorities or ideas of what it means to live a “good life” do. Shouldn’t that be part of growing up, too?
Rather than sticking to the script we assigned ourselves (or our structures and society assigned us), maybe we can imagine who we are, what matters to us, and what we need without focusing on “growing into” the next big thing. Maybe we can look at ourselves-as-is, rather than the ones we envisioned becoming. That’s the place everything else grows from, anyway.
People I spoke to pointed out everything from therapy, if it was accessible to them, to turning their attention more to the present as things that helped. For me, it was comforting to acknowledge the beauty in endings, in chapters closing. When we orient so much of our lives around a certain kind of life — whatever version of that we thought we wanted — it can be startling to realize we may not actually want that anymore. It’s another life transition, another means of becoming ourselves. Our feelings, our dreams, our perspectives of ourselves and our places in communities can change. That, it seems, is a fundamental of who we are: Not just someone who did X, or did Y; someone who stuck to the plan. But a person who keeps changing— who keeps noticing, who keeps imagining new chapters in the story of their life, who keeps responding to what life shows them. Not a bad way to grow.