Are you feeling stuck? Are you feeling overwhelmed? Are you feeling the pressures of figuring out your life’s direction? If you are experiencing these and are between the ages of twenty to mid-thirties, you, my friend, are having a quarter-life crisis. It is like a mid-life crisis, but it happens earlier in your adult life. Because the mid-life crisis is more recognized, most people assume that it is more common, but it’s not. Young people are just as likely to experience a life crisis as their middle-aged counterparts. While the underlying emotions are similar, the major difference lies in how others perceive those struggling through the crisis. A midlife crisis is more widely accepted, while a quarter-life crisis is often brushed off or belittled.
While some people grow up with beyond-their-years adult responsibilities and struggles, most people experience higher-stakes situations for the first time after graduating from high school. Paying bills, scheduling time for leisure and errands and chores around work schedules, and living without the extra hand of a parent or caregiver is a huge transition. This “end of childhood” signals that now, everything counts. Now, you must achieve a set of goals in record time. And you “should” be able to do it on your own. But there is no magic switch that flips once you turn eighteen, or twenty-one, where now you are ready for anything and everything. The problem is that you feel like there should be, and this creates a crisis!
What are the causes of the Quarter-life crisis?
1) Life transitions:
Entering young adulthood will bring with it new experiences. While some of these may be things you have been looking forward to since middle school, such as living alone, they can also become daunting and challenging experiences. You may now be solely responsible for your living arrangements and finances. In addition, you are navigating relationships and making long-term personal and professional decisions. After years of adults telling you what to do and how to spend your time, you are now expected to make all your decisions for yourself. If you were lucky, you were raised by people who sought to build your self-confidence in making decisions and taking responsibility for your actions, but that doesn’t mean you are fully prepared to do it all for yourself all at once. Unfortunately, you probably feel like you should be ready, and the stakes feel too high for you to be patient and gentle with yourself about the learning process of being independent. Milestones like buying your first car or renting your first place are exciting but feel like big commitments. It has probably never occurred to you to figure out what to ask about a car or what to look for in an apartment. Post-secondary can also be a time of immense interpersonal changes, such as moving away from longtime friends and family or having your first real break-up.
2) Feeling pressure to perform and prove oneself:
It may feel as though life is getting more competitive and difficult. Having a college degree may feel mandatory rather than an accomplishment. I see this often in my practice, where I provide therapy for young adults in Los Angeles, CA. The ever-increasing narrative that a degree is the only route to success coupled with the higher and higher standards to get accepted for post-secondary education is like a pressure cooker on young minds that are still developing. This is exceptionally frustrating to generations whose upward mobility is directly opposite to that of their parents; Baby Boomers spent their working years in an economic boom, where wages kept up with living costs. Subsequent generations have been expected to achieve the same success but without any of the same advantages. With social media, there is more comparison than ever before, and you may be compared to your peers by your family members or friends.
Unintentionally, you may find yourself identifying your self-esteem and self-worth based on whether you are doing better or worse than your friends. You start to forget to be happy for them; and instead, feel overwhelmed by a sense of failure. When you experience inconsistencies in your motivation and feel uninspired, you may feel like something must be wrong with you. You might be operating from outdated stories that “Strong people are always motivated” or, “Successful people always know what they want to do and where they are headed.” Therefore, any decrease in motivation, drive, ambition, or inspiration can quickly make you doubt yourself, further exacerbating your quarter-life crisis.
3) Going through a crisis in the midst of a crisis:
Managing a quarter-life crisis is hard as it is, but you have been asked to overcome it during a global pandemic. According to the Federal Reserve Board, Gen-Zers and 25% of Millennials lost a job during this pandemic compared to 14% of Baby Boomers. This generation did not have the savings in reserve to support them during this time. Therefore, they are experiencing more stress than older adults.
Most young adults are reporting higher rates of depression, anxiety and displaying trauma responses. The pandemic is only the latest in a series of events that have brought young adults to a developmental standstill. Another major factor that has impacted working young adults for more than a decade is the economic crisis. Millennials entered the job market as the Great Recession began and bore the brunt of unemployment as a result. The unemployment rate for working-age millennials and Gen-Z didn’t drop back down to the national average until 2018, just three years ago! Today, income inequality is vaster than ever before. Trying to achieve the same success as your parents did in a rigged game is overwhelming and exhausting; many of the younger adults in our working economy struggle with a feeling of hopelessness about the future. If you are looking at the future and debating your ability to have things you envisioned, like children or homeownership, you are not alone. What you were told was possible if you followed the assigned path probably seems further and further out of reach.
Faced with this sense of futility, the urge to explore who you really are and what you really want feels hopeless and depressing. Add to that the usual transition-to-adulthood challenges: the breakup of relationships, navigating full-time employment, household tasks and chores, friend and family drama, and more, and you’ve got the justifiable makings of a quarter-life crisis. The anxiety that you are experiencing is completely understandable, and it can be dealt with.
Three easy steps to managing your quarter-life crisis:
1) Understand that you are going through a quarter-life crisis:
…and give yourself a break. Instead of shaming or judging yourself as “selfish,” “weak,” or someone who is “missing a backbone,” stop and understand that there is a name to what you are going through. You are not the only person to struggle with this life transition, and you are doing it in a time of exceptional uncertainty and trauma. Remind yourself that your feelings are normal. Change is difficult and scary for everyone, and fear of the unknown future is overwhelming. In your twenties, you will feel pulled between “having fun and exploring your freedom while you are young” and “setting yourself up for the future.” You may want to have children later, so you want to travel now. But you may want to buy a house later, so you feel that you should be working now, while you are young and healthy. This conflict is occurring while the brain continues developing – literally. The prefrontal cortex, which controls impulses, isn’t done developing until age twenty-five. Of course, you are in crisis mode! Accept that you will have to explore your feelings and your situation as you go. In accepting the situation, find ways to provide yourself with care. However, that looks for you, lean into it. Practice affirmations for yourself, such as, “I have more time than I think I do,” or “I am still learning and growing, and that is okay.” Just because you are suddenly thrust into “the adult world” does not mean that you have to have all the answers. There is no way for you to have everything in your future mapped out. It is great to have goals, but they are to be worked towards with patience and grace.
2) Identify and make decisions based upon your values, not your fears:
It would be easy to say, “Don’t be afraid,” or, “Everything will be fine.” But the truth is that you may have a lot to be fearful of as a young adult: fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of making the wrong choices for yourself. Telling yourself to act like those fears don’t exist won’t really work long-term. Instead, first, acknowledge that fear is in the car with you; but you won’t let it be in the driver’s seat. Hopefully, it will be in the back seat, but some days it may be in the passenger seat right next to you, taking control over the radio station and playing out all your feared outcomes. In those situations, we are not helpless. We have our values to guide our way.
To identify our values, we have to take stock of what exists in our lives now and what we are hoping for in the future. For example, if we are very close with our family, that is a value. If we aspire to be financially secure enough to donate to animal rescue charities, that is a value. Think about who you are as a person and how you would describe yourself. Make a list of what is important to you: family, friends, the environment, animals, being a parent, not being a parent, having a nice home, traveling, learning new languages. Any and everything that makes you who you are and guides the decisions you make in your life.
Once you identify your values, yes, ultimately, you have to take action. There is no way around this one. But the good news is that you are taking positive action! You are making strides toward what is significant to you. Sometimes, your fears will speak to you about failure at something you value, and that’s where it can be tough. But for the most part, you will be able to decide your path because you are working toward your career, or a relationship, or reducing your carbon footprint, as opposed to making choices because you’re afraid you’ll fail or not measure up to someone you know.
3) You don’t have to figure it out all on your own:
While the arts and social media are showing more and more conversations about mental health, they are still not the first line of defense when you think about finding yourself. It is great to see therapy and therapeutic settings normalized and publicized more often, but that doesn’t mean that you get all the encouragement or support you need through this medium. Unfortunately, deep down, you might still think, therapy is for “others” who “have it worse than you” or who have more “legitimate” reasons, like grief or illnesses like Bipolar disorder. However, therapy is the right place to address life stressors and transitions that most happen during young adulthood, whether you speak with a therapist one-on-one, in a group setting, or both! There are support groups for anxiety that can help you reconnect with yourself and learn coping strategies to deal with your anxiety.
You will want to get your quarter-life crisis over with as soon as possible, but there is no way to fast forward through it. And the big goals in life, the ones you work toward piece by piece, take time to achieve. Saving money, building relationships, honing your skills, establishing a career, all of it. Coming to a place of peace with who you are and what you stand for doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes, we have a stroke of luck and get to skip steps, but mostly, we have to patiently build and nurture the important things in our lives. There are no shortcuts. When André De Shields won the Featured Actor – Musical Tony Award in 2019, it was his first Tony award at the age of seventy-three. He gave an amazing speech about what he had learned in life and in his fifty years as an actor. In it, he gave the following advice: “Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be.”
Be patient with yourself. Be kind to yourself. You will find your footing. You will settle into your life, the ups and down and the good and bad of it. Your entire life is ahead of you in the best way possible.
Other Services at Embracing You Therapy
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.