As was the case with “woke,” “stan” and “fomo,” the term “adulting” entered my vocabulary ironically, then slithered its way into earnest usage. I’ve been completely self-sufficient since I moved 700 miles away from home after high school. I held jobs throughout college, held three jobs the summer before graduation, have lived on my own (OK, with an assortment of roommates) and worked full-time since graduating college. Also, there’s grad school.
I don’t recount this to pat myself on the back — I’m absolutely aware that millions of people take on way more way sooner — but to point out that just doing the bare minimum of what it takes to be considered an adult, it gets exhausting.
What adulting means to me.
Adulting is the act of doing things that you really don’t want to do but do anyway because you have to, or bad things happen. Bad things include, but are not limited to, running out of food, wearing dirty shirts, developing cavities or getting fired from a job. I enjoy the word because it’s a light-hearted term that lets users express a sentiment that’s kind of intense: existing takes a lot of work.
Here are a few adulting milestones of which I’m proudest:
Figured out how to navigate the subway system: Actual ten-year-olds accomplish this feat every single day, but I was still incredibly proud the first time I relayed on my brain to move through the transit system instead of only apps in college.
Booked a doctor appointment: As someone with major phone anxiety, I spent more time than I’m eager to admit avoiding calling offices. Pair this with the discomfort and fear that can accompany a doctor visit, and this task started to feel herculean.
Opened a high interest saving account: I still have a lot to learn about money, but this was the first step I took to really make my money start working for me. I can’t believe how long I let money sit in my regular savings account accumulating basically nothing.
Called customer service: Calling any one in general can feel like a big deal, but the thought of dealing with customer service made me extra nervous because I’m pretty averse to confrontation (which is how I saw addressing any issue for a very long time). Letting a company know a product I ordered arrived broken turned out to be a much smaller deal than I’d anticipated.
If it seems like I congratulate myself for doing incredibly innocuous tasks, that’s just because I do. Being an adult/adulting/being responsible for literally anything isn’t easy. Burnout is definitely not a new phenomenon, but because more channels are available for people to share their experiences, more people are able to express their thoughts and feelings. Growing up — or being grown up — has always been a challenge, but only a select few had a platform to speak about it if they chose to. Curated stoicism is now giving way to unabashed vulnerability.
After living on my own for a few years, I asked my mom when she finally felt like a real adult. “I still don’t,” she said. So reassuring. Truthfully, hearing her admit that adulthood wasn’t a state easily recognized was empowering in a strange way. If someone who had managed to keep a whole other person alive for eighteen years still didn’t feel like they were really grown-up, maybe I shouldn’t feel bad in the moments when keeping up with everything felt like they were weighing me down.
One of the toughest things about adulting is that it requires measuring out pros and cons and often wondering if a decision is even the right one. In the grand scheme of things, there isn’t a right or wrong answer. In the end, sometimes it’s just about trying.
When I don’t feel like adulting, but know that I have to, I:
Remind myself why it has to be done: It’s not fun, but I basically parent myself by saying, “you remember what happened last time…” Replaying consequences is usually a good motivator to keep moving forward.
Complain... a lot: While there’s certainly something to be said for keeping a positive attitude, commiserating via group text with friends who also feel overwhelmed or just plain bored gives me the strength to keep calm and adult on.
Crank up music and podcasts: Running errands and tidying up feels like way less of a chore when an awesome music mix or hilarious podcast is streaming into my ears. Getting lost long in something beautiful or funny is the ideal distraction.
Make a checklist: Something about physically ticking off a box is incredibly satisfying. It feels like giving myself a gold star sticker without feeling completely like a child.
Reward myself: You ever hear about those Millennials who expect participation trophies just for showing up? I get through 90% of uninteresting and mildly difficult tasks by promising myself some sort of trophy that usually involves chocolate just for taking out the garbage.
Count my blessings: A lot of the tasks surrounding adulting come down to having the ability to make choices. At the end of the day, I know I’m fortunate to have the autonomy to take care of things on my own.
Being able to enjoy independence is a great thing, and I consider the true reward of adulting to be having the ability to stop. When I don’t want to adult anymore, I stop everything. I refuse to check social media (which is full of other more adult people adulting better), eat a pint of ice cream while lying in bed and watch Sex and the City reruns until I don’t feel like holding my eyes open. Then, I nap. I wake up with the strength to return that library book, buy leafy greens at the grocery store and refill my monthly MetroCard because sometimes the most adult thing we can do is to stop focusing on adulting at all.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, and her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.