I will be 28 at the end of this year, and I am feeling very anxious about the next stage of my life.

I am generally very sociable, and have built a wide circle of friends. However, lately, I have found that many of my friends are in committed, settled relationships, and I worry that I have nothing in common with my peers any more. I am grateful to have had three romantic relationships in my 20s, although none of these have worked out. I have considered dating, but I find that a lot of men my age and older are more interested in women who are in their early 20s. This has surprised me and made me feel insecure about searching for a partner.

I lived in a different city when I went to university, and I have been lucky to have visited several countries all over the world throughout my life, but now I am working in a career in the city I was born in, and I feel very restless and unmotivated. I have considered moving abroad, but I am lucky to have the job that I have and I am not sure it would be productive to leave it.

I am also concerned that I would face the same challenges abroad, such as having things in common with peers who are in settled relationships. I am not sure that I am happy with the way that my life has gone over the past decade, and I am worried it is too late to do anything meaningful or exciting. I can appreciate that I have my health and that I have a lot of life left to live, but I can’t shake this feeling of dread and anxiety about what is coming next.

It’s not uncommon when friends go through stages you are not sharing with them (new job, relationships, new baby, etc) to feel a bit adrift, left out, left behind – no one likes this feeling. And I think your 20s is when this happens a lot, and it can leave you feeling really disoriented. But unless the friendship is very transient (and some friendships are, but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable for the time they last), you should be able to meet one another on the other side. After all, you will one day go through a life stage that your friends aren’t going through and they may feel like this. What’s important is to look for the landmarks of similarity, rather than where you diverge.

I consulted Andy Cottom, a psychotherapist (ukcp.org.uk), who wonders “who made up the rules that you’re trying to follow? The expectations of stages in life: school, university, buy a house, settle down? You seem to be at a stage where your friends are settling down, but perhaps you don’t want to?”

If I were to tell you that, actually, you will get all the things you want (whatever they are) later, what would you do with this stage of your life? Of course, I can’t guarantee anything, but it’s a useful exercise to think like this. Because if you could be sure you would, for example, settle down (this is the thing you seem to have mentioned the most, that other people are doing and you are not) – how would you view this period in your life now? Would you not, actually, be able to enjoy the freedom and independence more, instead of worrying about what will happen next. Are you not, perhaps, more worried and anxious about what won’t happen, rather than what is happening?

You mention being back in the city you were born in – was that a fall-back decision or a positive one? You present this as if it were a step backwards, as if everyone else is moving forward but you are not. I don’t think that’s accurate because you are not comparing like with like. Can you pinpoint why you are unmotivated? Did you feel unmotivated before “all your friends started settling down” – have their choices made you look more acutely on your own? It is hard not to be swayed by what’s happening around you but I wonder what grounds you? (Family? No mention of them.)

If you could tap more into what makes you feel safe – in this period of what you feel to be instability – it might give you a chance to zone into what it is that you really want. Maybe moving cities and jobs is the right thing to do, but you should do it because you want to, because it’s right for you – not as a reaction to what is happening with your friends.

Did something particular trigger this feeling of dread and anxiety? Can you trace it back to a particular event and, if so, could you examine what this represents to you?

You know, there may be someone in your circle right now looking at you and thinking how much you’ve got going for you, because nothing is ever as it seems and all those people around you who seem to have it so sorted – they haven’t. You are not quite 28; you say yourself that you have a lot of life left to live – you do! You have the whole of the rest of your life to do something “meaningful and exciting” or just meaningful and very ordinary, if that’s what you choose to do.

Cottom advises you to “have more confidence in your abilities. Don’t be frightened by the freedom you have.”