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  • Writer's pictureCécile Hemery

The difference between “adulting” and “being an adult”

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

A woman, her back to us, is looking at the horizon, a sunset over a green field, with wind swishing her hair and her right arm raised toward it, hinting at choice, happiness and living the moment

Merriam-Webster defines “adulting” as “behaving like an adult: to attend to the ordinary tasks required of a responsible adult” and an adult is someone who is “fully developed and mature”. It implies then, that someone who is adulting is not necessarily, in fact, a responsible adult.

When do we become adults?

As children, there are clear phases for how we develop.

First, as babies, we have a “feeling soul” - we don’t know the world, we feel it, and intuition guides us. We know without being aware that we know. We are connected to the world in a way that is impossible to describe.

Then as we grow, as we learn how to talk and develop our brain, we gradually distance ourselves from this “feeling soul” and we replace it with reason, we enter the “age of reason” - around age 7. By gaining the ability to speak of the world, we put a distance between it and ourselves, and disconnect ourselves from that intuitive link.

We then go through the awkward teenage years, where we learn boundaries, get acquainted with our evolving bodies and adjust towards independence.

We turn 18, or 21, depending on where we live, and suddenly, we’re officially an adult.

I used to joke that you’re really an adult when you turn 27 because that’s when all discounts for “young people” end. On your 27th birthday. That is when the world tells you you’re really an adult now.

We believe that we’re now adults because we work and earn money to provide for ourselves. Because we got married. Because we have children. Because we bought a car, and have a mortgage. We’re paying our bills, taxes. Surely, whoever’s building a pension is an adult.

But this is not being an adult. This is adulting. This is doing the things you need to do in order to function in society.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be doing any of it, or that it’s bad, or that you don’t enjoy it nor find meaning in it.

I’m saying that, when you’re adulting, the training wheels are still there. We’re following the path we have been set on, without questioning it, without awareness that we’ve been put on this path or that we have a choice.

What is “being an adult” then?

Being an adult is owning your life. Owning your decisions. Being conscious of your choices and why you have made them and accepting the consequences, the good and the bad, with responsibility and poise. Re-evaluating and questioning those choices as you go and being open to choosing differently - or the same again.

Being an adult is being able to “face the void” of what life is and isn’t.

Life is the unknown. You have to accept that you have no control over it. Control is a word that is ill-suited to describe how to harness life. You have power over yourself, not life. You’re not trying to fix your life, you’re trying to grow as an individual and do what you can with what you have.

An adult has a conscience and awareness of what is really going on. You have choices about what you can do. You have the ability to act depending on the circumstances, and these actions will allow you to influence outcomes.

When you become an adult, you have to evolve your reasoning. This isn’t about logic anymore, if I do this, then this happens. The world is much more complex than that. You have to become wise. You accept bumps in the road.

And you accept that in some cases, in order to reach your potential, or answer the calling of your life, you have to engage in roads less traveled. Or you choose not to, because you are committed to the responsibilities that you have in the here and now.

Calling it the age of wisdom would not be accurate. I think wisdom comes at an even later stage.

The difference between adult and adulting is the “age of conscience”.

The fear of “facing the void” is a topic that comes regularly in my conversations with my clients.

There are so many things in that void: Who am I if I break from the path that has been mapped out for me? What is my contribution and legacy to the world? What is important to me? How do I reconcile the things that are important to me but that are also in conflict with each other? How do I make a path for myself and take my first steps on it?

All of these questions bring discomfort. Fear. Anxiety, even.

And why now? Maybe you were perfectly content before, or maybe, content “enough” that even though those questions were at the fringe of your mind, they were not bothering you. But today, they infiltrate your every thought. They have become a hindrance and the more time passes, the more cumbersome they are.

Why now? For most people, “now” happens because a triggering event occurred (a divorce, a toxic relationship in life or work, a loss, etc.). Something important that broke the lenses you were looking at the world with and forced you to look at it with your own eyes directly. And as you look at it now, it doesn’t feel quite the same, it is unfamiliar.

This is when your opportunity to become a “fully developed and mature” adult arises. By facing those questions, by facing those fears, you will gain clarity. You will gain insights. And you will choose what to do next. This is the difference between adulting and being an adult.

Maybe you will choose to go on as you were, but the difference is that you know why you’re on this path. And this difference will give you new energy and renewed ownership of your life.

Or maybe you will choose to go on a different path, and despite the challenges of starting fresh later in life, you will be driven by the knowledge that it is yours, and accept that it may take you to places you don’t know, or envision yet.


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