Whether it be in session with clients or on the couch with friends, it is clear to me that people everywhere are suffering from what I have coined “The timeline trap”. I have defined the timeline trap as: rigid thoughts, beliefs, and expectations we have for ourselves in regard to where we “should” be in our lives at any set point in time. These ideas then impact our behaviors and often lead to increased suffering whether it be time spent dwelling over the fact that we are not where we want to be in our life, or anxiety about whether we will meet our own deadlines moving forward. 

These thought patterns are common and manifest themselves as traps in various areas of our lives such as our body image, careers and relationships. For example, I often hear about a clothing size or a weight people feel they must achieve by summer or by the time an important event occurs. These traps can also emerge as beliefs about the salary we believe that we “should” be making, or how established we “should” be in our careers by a certain age. In relationships, these thinking traps present as expectations of what age we think we “should” settle down at or how often we “should” have sex given our age or length of our relationships.

The truth is that everyone is different and will have different journeys. There are no specific rules in place to guide us through various areas of our lives. This does not mean that we shouldn’t have hopes, goals, and expectations for ourselves, but it does mean that we need to be willing to adapt these when necessary and acknowledge that life does not always work out according to our plans. Timeline traps often lead to self-doubt and hinder our ability to bravely follow our own unique paths. 

The most common timeline trap I have noticed involves marriage and when people feel they “should” settle down. Associating marriage with a specific age limit can be problematic for a variety of reasons. For example, people are often more willing to stay in toxic relationships or settle in dissatisfying relationships in order to avoid the discomfort or risk of not finding a partner at the age they are set on. It is also common for people to begin to attribute not being married at their ideal age to something being wrong with them. It can impact their view of themselves and overall self-worth.


I “Should” be married already

Using the marriage example, the skills listed below can be used to challenge this timeline trap:

1. Identify the timeline trap by becoming aware of the thought or expectation causing distress.

ie. I need to be married by 28 years old 

2.  Background- Ask yourself what experiences you have had that may have led to this way of thinking.

ie. My parents were married by 28 years old

ie. I always pictured myself married by 28 years old

ie. I was told that I may have issues having babies after 35 years old

3. Gain perspective – Rather than trying to get rid of the distressing thought, see if you can find a new way to view the situation.

ie. Just because something made sense for my parents does not mean it is necessarily right for me

ie. Nowadays, people in society are getting married later in life than our parents did

ie. I would rather get married later in life to someone I am in love with than settle for someone that does not make me happy

ie. Divorce rates are skyrocketing because people are approaching marriage with a sense of urgency rather than searching for their soul mate 

ie. If for some reason I am unable to have a baby, there are alternative ways to have children

4. Breathe – Take a deep breath. Remember that emotions are temporary so breathe into the moment and allow yourself to live in the now. Simply by practicing being present in the moment your emotional distress will peak and pass. 

Through these steps we can practice breaking down our thoughts, creating space for new thoughts and insights, and regulating ourselves to reduce maladaptive responses to these thoughts. We may think that we need to be married by 28 years old, but it is believing that this thought is a fact that may lead us to become depressed if we are not married by then, or it could lead us to settle for whomever we are with at the time just to make our own arbitrary deadline even if it means sacrificing finding the right person. 

These 4 steps can be applied to any timeline trap. The more we can practice flexible thinking the more adaptable we will be in our lives and in finding our own paths. Break free of these traps and find peace in the idea that life is not a race. Sometimes letting go of these expectations is the key to reducing suffering and increasing your quality of life. 

If you want to talk about this, online therapy can help. Contact us today.

Article written by Dani Parmacek, LCPC

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