It's Time to Ditch That "Life Timeline" You Created for Yourself

Experts reveal why this popular concept can be damaging—and how social media is making it worse.
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sarah hanlon entertainment and celebrity editor the knot
Sarah Hanlon
sarah hanlon entertainment and celebrity editor the knot
Sarah Hanlon
Entertainment & Celebrity Editor
  • Sarah is the Entertainment & Celebrity Editor for The Knot, with special focuses on pop culture and celebrity wedding news.
  • Before joining The Knot Worldwide, Sarah was a contributing writer for Bravo at NBC Universal.
  • Sarah has a degree in journalism and resides in New York City.
Updated Feb 28, 2023

It doesn't matter whether you're single or married, Gen Z or Millennial—there's a good chance you've created a life timeline at some point. It's a common topic of conversation, which you might have discussed with your friends at high school sleepovers or Sunday brunches. Perhaps you always envisioned yourself getting engaged at 25, married before 27, and with two kids by 30; or, you may see yourself waiting until you're a bit older to settle down. The act of making your own "life timeline" is incredibly normal, particularly because it gives you something to anticipate and strive for. But what happens when your life timeline doesn't go according to plan?

Some people consider themselves "chronically online" today, and you might be one. There's no denying that social media comes with plenty of perks, but its presence can take a toll on your mental health, especially if you fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others. Even though you know deep down that Instagram and TikTok showcase people's highlight reels, it can feel defeating when you constantly see others' achievements. You might find yourself thinking, "Everyone is getting married except me!" or, "All my friends are having kids!" Although it's not a good feeling, it's certainly normal. Here, two experts explain why it may be time to ditch your life timeline—and how to be proud of everything you have accomplished.

Meet the Experts:

  • Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, is a psychiatrist and the Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance Health, a provider of outpatient, in-person and virtual mental healthcare.
  • Laurel House is a published author and celebrity relationship and dating coach. She hosts the podcast Man Whisperer and serves as eharmony's Relationship Expert.

What is a Life Timeline?

A life timeline, or the timeline of your life, is exactly what it sounds like. It's the idealized schedule of milestones you'd like to accomplish by certain ages. Most people have life timelines, even if they are subconscious. Thanks to longstanding societal norms that have been in place for decades, it's generally deemed "normal" and "expected" to do certain things in a particular order. That said, your ideal "life timeline" is incredibly personal and nuanced. While you might want to land your dream job by 30, get married by 33 and buy your dream house by 35, someone else may want to get married by 25 and start having children by 29. The beauty of your life timeline is that it's completely dependent upon your personal goals and aspirations.

One problem with having a life timeline is that it may make you feel inferior if things don't go according to plan. In a perfect world, you could acknowledge that, sometimes, life happens and plans change. But when you start comparing your achievements to others, it can start to feel like you're not good enough, or that everyone else is thriving while you're still trying to find your footing. "It's very common for us to set timelines for ourselves, but we see these major milestones in our lives as 'goals' and can feel a sense of failure when we don't achieve certain things," explains Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, a psychiatrist and the Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance Health. "This can be extremely harmful to our mental health. We can get down on ourselves for not 'achieving' these goals, and feel like we are running out of time."

She explains that social media exacerbates this challenge because it provides a funneled view of life. Even if you have worthwhile accomplishments to celebrate, seeing others blast their major wins can make you long for something you don't have. "When we see idealized lives on social media, we tend to not recognize what we have that others do not, and we focus more on what others have that we do not," Patel-Dunn adds.

Why It's Time to Ditch Your Life Timeline

While creating a life timeline might seem like a logical way to hold yourself accountable to your life goals, it can do more harm than good over time. "The biggest problem with setting lifetime goals is that they are frequently unrealistic and can create unhealthy stress, especially for singles," explains eharmony's Relationship Expert Laurel House. "The failure to accomplish goal deadlines may create an overall sense of failure which can affect their sense of worth, happiness and health."

Here, we explore the biggest challenges that come with creating a life timeline—and how you can set long-term goals that are empowering and realistic.

It fuels comparison among your inner circle and people you don't know.

Picture this: You're in the thick of the holiday season in December, and you open Instagram. Within five minutes of scrolling through your feed, you see three engagements, a handful of pregnancy announcements, and a gorgeous winter wedding. Regardless of how you know these people—whether they're high school classmates, college friends, influencers, or celebrities—it can feel overwhelming to see others' successes if you're not on the same track.

"It's common to feel a sense of FOMO when your friends and peers are having major life milestones," says Patel-Dunn. "While we can feel excited for them, we may want the same thing and not have it. We live in a society where we focus on certain pieces of our life and fail to look at the bigger picture."

It can perpetuate feelings of isolation.

Once you're caught in the comparison cycle, you might find yourself feeling like your relationship timeline or your overall life trajectory is inferior due to others'. There's no denying that this has become exponentially more prevalent, thanks to the internet. "Social media is a major influencer of negative feelings, especially through comparison," adds Patel-Dunn. "But people often post their 'highlight reels' online, which means we don't know what's going on behind the scenes."

Of course, the idea of social media being a highlight reel certainly isn't new. In fact, if you've ever spoken up about social media making you feel bad about yourself, you might have been reminded of this very concept by friends and family alike. According to Patel-Dunn, though, it's critical to come to this understanding if you fall victim to judging yourself and your successes based on what you see online. "By nature, social media is an attempt at marketing one's own brand, so we tend to put the best versions of ourselves out there for it. We can see our friend's highlight reels, and we can find ourselves comparing them to our personal behind the scenes, and we may feel like we're doing something wrong. We may struggle to see the context behind the moment, and not see the greater picture."

It may diminish other successes in your life.

When you're constantly exposed to other people's achievements, you might begin to discredit your own. This is especially true when it comes to traditional milestones that are deemed "worthy" and "expected," like getting engaged or tying the knot. Perhaps your goals are career-focused, or you and your partner are determined to save for a down payment on a home before getting engaged. Although your top values and goals are deeply personal, it's easy to lose sight of what matters most when others are being celebrated for different milestones.

"It's essential to remember that, while your friend might be achieving things in their life in their way based on their priorities and goals, yours might be different," House explains. "Even if they are similar, your life is undoubtedly very different from theirs in terms of the realities of what is really happening within their relationships, life, career, mind and body." Adds Patel-Dunn: "We can get down on ourselves for not 'achieving' our goals, and feel like we are running out of time. In reality, though, our timelines are all based on unique circumstances, and we need to cut ourselves slack for 'failing' to hit arbitrary deadlines."

It can compromise your overall mental health—but it doesn't have to.

When it feels like everyone around you is getting engaged, married, or having kids, your sense of self-worth can be compromised. While it's certainly normal to feel this way, it's necessary to put things into perspective. One thing Patel-Dunn recommends, for example, is implementing a gratitude practice. "While you may not be where we thought you would, you've learned a lot and experienced a lot along the way," she suggests. "You can be appreciative of these experiences, and feel grateful for what we do have."

Patel-Dunn also recommends treating yourself the way you'd treat a friend going through similar circumstances: with kindness and empathy. After all, just because you aren't engaged or married quite yet doesn't mean it's not in the cards for you at all. "We often feel more compassionate toward a friend instead of ourselves, so framing it from this perspective may make it easier to prioritize ourselves when we think about the advice we would give to a friend."

When your feed is really taking a toll, don't underestimate the power of the unfollow button. "What shows up on your feed is reflective of where you put your time and energy reading others," House says. "Instead of wasting your energy, depleting your enthusiasm, and triggering an unhealthy envious FOMO reaction, search for inspirational people who post positive mantras, quotes, insight, inspiration and ideas. Go onto social media in order to improve your life, laugh and feel empowered. If someone's posts are bringing you down, you can block, unfollow, or simply mute them."

When you do find yourself caught up in feelings of comparison and distress over your timeline, remember that life isn't always black and white, so it's not fair to treat your achievements as such. "We need to be ready for the fact that our goals may need to be adapted to new life circumstances," Patel-Dunn notes. "The pieces we deem as 'failures' are learning opportunities that we can use to achieve those goals we have set for ourselves, even if they aren't in the timeline we hoped for. At the end of the day, it's a great sign of personal growth to know how to adapt when these milestones aren't achieved in our desired timeline."

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