Fear of the future: why it’s okay to not be okay

Illustration by Livi Wilson

Josie feels like she’s disappearing in post-uni self-doubt. She asks, is there a healthier way of framing her fears?

Whenever people ask me what my plans for the future are, I clam up. I scroll through my phone, divert my eyes. Make a self-effacing joke. Start fiddling with the cutlery on the table. Make an excuse to leave the room. I try to prevent myself from admitting how scared I’m really feeling, from accepting just how vulnerable I really am. I wonder if others pity me, make judgements about the life I’ve chosen. I feel almost naive for following my dreams. As a singer-songwriter I have no stable source of income. My life is not defined by boundaries or parameters. I work a twenty-four-hour contract in retail. My hours are flexible so I have time to create, but working in customer service is often draining, physically exhausting, mindless. I know I have something more to offer but most of the time I feel barely visible, like a shadow cast on the back of a wall. I wonder if I feel like this because of the life I have chosen. Would this be different if I was successful? If I had the life I dream of would I finally be ‘happy’?

And what if I never make money from my music? Or get a record deal? Does that mean I should pursue a different career path entirely? I would be forced to prioritise money over my creativity. Yet the idea of financial security is often deeply compelling. It would promise me safety and security, an escape from the intensity of existing as an artist. But it would also mean denying a fundamental part of myself. To ignore the urge to create would be more painful than the burden of following it. Deep down, I know I will never stop writing music. And if I don’t do it now, I am certain I will regret it for the rest of my life.

Why do I feel so dissatisfied? Is it due to anything concrete, or is this just what being 23 feels like?

But no matter how hard I try, I can’t help but beat myself up. I wish I was achieving more. I wish I was signed. I wish I was earning more. I want to occupy some version of a perfect life, one entirely removed from my own. Why do I feel so dissatisfied? Is it due to anything concrete, or is this just what being 23 feels like? Now I’ve stepped off the educational conveyor belt, my future feels non-existent. It is almost as though I never went to university, and now I have to start all over again. But I’m stuck in the middle of an ever-expanding sea I have no clue how to navigate. So I take a deep breath and try to keep my cool. I continue to tread water. Whatever I do, I mustn’t sink. I wake up, eat breakfast, put the coffee on, go to the gym, go to work. After a while this becomes exhausting. I start to break down. I know I can’t keep on like this forever, trapped in this state where I am stuck on repeat; day-in, day-out. But because I don’t have the answers, I have no choice. I can’t give up on music. I can’t give up on writing. That would be like asking me to give up some essential part of my being; the very means through which I am defined. Sometimes I can lose myself in the momentum of merely existing. Other days I can’t get out of bed at all.

 I feel like I’m losing control over a life that was always clearly defined by boundaries. I lived inside these structures, constructing my sense of meaning according to them. I went to school, passed my GCSEs, took my A Levels, went to uni. No-one ever asked me what my plan was afterwards. All anyone ever seemed to care about was what grades I had got and how successfully I would pass the next milestone. Now I’ve decided to pursue a creative career path I feel like an outsider. Every yardstick I’ve been taught to measure my life against has disappeared, and a void has opened up. I stare down inside it and wonder what to do. If I choose to jump, will the risks pay off? And more importantly, why is it that I measure my life according to such inflexible terms?

Every decision we make seems to be subject to a cost-benefit analysis. We weigh the pros and cons of each potential choice until we feel we are going mad.

In the modern world, every decision we make seems to be subject to a cost-benefit analysis. We weigh the pros and cons of each potential choice until we feel we are going mad. We are terrified of making mistakes, we don’t want to have regrets. It is rare to find people who only follow their instinct, and despite the way pop culture encourages us to ‘follow our dreams’, we are, in reality, encouraged to be practical about the future. Instead of doing what we want to do, we often feel obliged to go with what is safe. On the reverse side, deciding to do the opposite can make you like a social outcast. Being a freelancer or an unsigned musician are not treated as proper vocations if pursuing them means having a part-time day job. Maintaining a work-life balance when you’re creative is near impossible. Either you’re not working enough hours but you’re financially compromised, or you’re working so much that you’re left too exhausted to create.

 As we’re feeling increasingly terrified about the future, I think it ultimately comes down to managing our expectations. School has taught us to be incredibly conscientious about every decision we make, whilst sparing little time for our emotional and physical wellbeing. Culture’s attempts to transform us into productive individuals has had the reverse effect. As I become more fearful of my future, I am also becoming paralysed by anxiety, which, paradoxically, often prevents me from trying to pursue anything at all. If I could only permit myself to accept the uncertainty of life itself, perhaps I could enjoy it more.

 The idea of becoming comfortable with uncertainty sounds contradictory. But I wonder if it might, in the long run, allow people to lead more fulfilling lives. If we can accept that getting to the place where we want to be involves facing a myriad of challenges and difficulties, we might begin to perceive experience differently. Instead of feeling upset that life hasn’t panned out exactly as we planned, we might see our doubts as part of getting to where we need to be. To truly make sense of our lives, we need to grapple not only with our hopes and dreams but also our fears. Understanding anxiety doesn’t cure it, but it can help us address what has caused it. I now know a great deal of the pressure I put on myself is the product of external circumstances. Despite the way I punish myself, I know I couldn’t be trying any harder. My fears actually have little to do with what I am or am not achieving. Finding a personal sense of accomplishment independent of social validation is not just important, but necessary to my very survival. Sometimes, I just need to remind myself that what I am doing is enough.

Despite the way I punish myself, I know I couldn’t be trying any harder. My fears actually have little to do with what I am or am not achieving.

 I don’t have a high-paying job, but I have a good family. I love my flatmates. I love my home. I’m lucky enough to fill my spare time with the things that inspire me. Why do I need to know what I’m doing in four weeks, or eight weeks, or six months time? Sometimes, I feel I’ve become so afraid of what’s to come that I’ve lost touch with the moments that make up life itself. The strange thing about time is that we never experience it as we imagine it. We only ever exist inside the present, yet our thoughts constantly remain elsewhere – always yearning towards the next big opportunity, the next big life event, the next move. But in doing so we are also preventing ourselves from finding contentment in the present. We are treating life as something to be escaped, rather than experienced. This is of course only human, it is only natural – but we cannot expect our imagined version of events to save us from the truths reality presents. We can only try to reconcile ourselves with life as best we can, despite how terrifying it often feels.

 The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ Due to the ever-changing nature of human consciousness, we are never precisely the same person as we were yesterday. This is one of the reasons why I love early mornings. They present the chance to start things anew. When my alarm goes off at 7am I know that today I will perceive myself and my surroundings ever-so-slightly differently. It is this capacity for change that allows humans to continue to survive. It is how and why we live. A good day can make all the difference after you’ve had three bad days  – even though when the bad days come, it feels like they’ll never end. Some days we will wake up and sense the beauty in things, other days we will wake restless. We might start off feeling hopeful, but feel sad and heavy by the time 7pm comes round. As humans we are in a constant state of flux; in endless reaction to our changing environment. Sometimes, all we need to do is notice this. To observe and to accept our emotions instead of trying to distract ourselves from them, so we might begin to see them non-judgmentally. When it comes to finding meaning in our lives, perhaps the happiness we seek does not exist only inside our hopes and dreams, but in the quiet acceptance of simply being. At the end of the day, the mere fact of our existence is all we have – perhaps the only certainty we can truly know.

Illustration by Livi Wilson – see her website here and her Instagram here

Are you frightened of the future? How do you cope? Let us know in the comments.

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