The year was … well, never mind
. I was in college, and I was having an unusually candid conversation with one of my college professors.
He was forty-three at the time, and he remembered sitting on a hill with his friends when he was twelve, back in the country of his birth.
He told me he hadn’t changed since then; he was exactly the same young, bewildered boy he had been… only now he had a job as a university professor.
He was an adult, he said, only on paper.
Recently I was talking with a woman who was turning 60. She mentioned that she still feels “like a little girl” inside, despite her advancing years.
These two people are not alone. I know from personal experience that it’s not unusual to feel younger on the inside than you are on the outside.
Stuck in Neutral
When I began therapy at the age of thirty, I discovered that I felt on the inside like I was only five years old.
It took me by surprise but it explained, at least in part, why I felt like I wasn’t self-actualizing (spoiler: I’m still working on that).
The problem with feeling younger inside than you are is that on some level, no matter how much you accomplish, you’re not moving forward.
Something’s stuck in Neutral.
In order to become who we are, we need to grow up. Not just on the outside, but on the inside.
But how does one do this? How do you resume maturing if you notice the clock has stopped?
Restarting the Clock
I began to grow up only when I decided to be where I was, instead of struggling to get to where I wanted to be (i.e., an adult). I started consciously inhabiting my 5-year-old frame of mind.
It might sound kooky, but this meant allowing myself to experience adult things as confusing or even frightening at times.
For instance, I remember riding the subway to work (I lived in New York City at the time) and spontaneously thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be on this train by myself. I’m only five.’
I shared my curious experience with a supportive friend. She got me a colorful birthday card that read:
“5 is happy
5 is fun
5 is what you are!”
It was a humorous but validating gesture from a true friend.
I decided to just go with feeling five and see where it led…
The minute I began letting myself experience my life with the heart of a 5-year-old — hopefully a process that was invisible to others — the clock started moving forward again.
I’m not saying I ate ice cream for dinner every day. I didn’t avoid riding the subway, either.
I didn’t act like I was five.
I simply paid attention to the fact that I felt five. Awareness is a powerful force for change.
As a new 5-year-old I experienced the insecurity of being a small person in a big world.
An ignorant person in a savvy world.
A weak person in a world that favors strength.
Those feelings are real, and they’re not just for children. Don’t we all feel small, ignorant or weak sometimes?
I needed to embrace those experiences — those truths — in order to grow up.
This is the paradox: To get somewhere, you must first fully BE where you are. It’s like you have to hit the Pause button in order to get going.
At various times over the next few years I felt eight, then ten, then thirteen and so on.
It’s been seventeen years since I felt five years old. I guess that makes me 22 now, which feels about right.
That 5-year-old girl is still there inside me, but now I also have a young adult self to comfort and guide her when times are tough.
My adult self is still developing, and I hope that I never stop growing emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
How about you? How old do you feel?