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The Dos and Don'ts of Your Quarter Life Crisis

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The Dos and Don'ts of Your Quarter Life Crisis

Tess Brigham

My own quarter-life crisis hit me when I was 27. By the time I realized what was happening, I was unemployed, completely broke and living with my mother. I had no idea when the actual crisis started—that’s the thing about a crisis, it tends to catch you off guard— but I definitely knew when it got the best of me. All I could do was surrender to what was happening.

It may seem like having a so-called “quarter-life crisis” is a recent phenomena; it’s certainly become a buzzword in mainstream media. But feeling lost and unsure of yourself as you enter adulthood is nothing new. It’s an issue that young adults have been struggling with forever.

What is new is the way young people are finding themselves in an actual crisis, where deep uncertainty takes the place of all the life plans you had prepared and, in many cases, actually disrupt those plans. For some, the crisis inspires clarity and they know just what to do. For others, like me, it was more like a wake-up call. I realized I wasn’t living the life I wanted, and I was spiraling out of control as a result. I knew I needed help

If you think you’re going through your own crisis as you read this, don’t feel bad and don’t feel like it’s just you. You’re not expected to know how to handle this crisis. How could you? You’re in uncharted territory! It’s how you decide to react to the crisis; that’s your test.

This guide is here to help you navigate your response to this life stage of uncertainty. I wish I had this guide when I was 27. In fact, after I re-assessed my career and life choices, I decided to devote my professional career to helping others like me navigate these 20-something years with more support than I had.

What is a Quarter-Life Crisis?

While there are certainly very different definitions for “Quarter-Life Crisis,” here’s the Wikipedia definition:

The ‘quarter-life crisis’ is a period of life usually ranging from the early twenties to the mid twenties, in which a person begins to feel doubtful about their own lives, brought on by the stress of becoming an adult.

I have found that it’s so hard to give a clear definition of what a “quarter-life crisis” is because it’s different for each individual and can happen at different ages for young adults, as well. There are no universal “symptoms,” or one-size-fits-all diagnoses. But one thing is certain: If you believe you’re going through a crisis then you probably are.

For some, the word crisis inspires extreme images of full-blown mental breakdown, while others call a minor dust-up with a friend a crisis. Trust your own instincts, you know yourself well enough to know when something’s not quite right. Anyway, it’s less about how you define crisis and more about how you handle it.

OMG, I’m 30… so if this isn’t a quarter-life crisis, then I must be crazy!

The word “quarter-life crisis” indicates that you should be experiencing this crisis somewhere around age 25, which is typically not the case. From my own experience working with twenty-somethings, the quarter-life crises hits some young people in the early 20s while other times a young person will go through their crisis in their late 20s or even early 30s.

Let me explain.

There seems to be two camps of young adults coming out of college. Those who have a clear idea of what they want personally and professionally. These young adults had no problem picking their major, they’ve been interning in their field for several years, and they’ve been plotting and planning their career (or even their wedding!) since high school or even earlier.

Then there is another group of young adults who maybe wanted to go to college, or maybe they felt like it was just “the next thing to do.” They struggled to identify their major and usually ended up just picking something that they liked but didn’t love or feel passionate about. They’ve interned and worked various jobs but nothing feels quite right or like “the thing” for them.

The young adults from the first group, the ones who have a path and are going for it, they usually experience their crisis towards the end of their 20s, sometimes in their early 30s. The second group usually has their crisis sometime shortly after college and in their early 20s.

The crisis itself comes about when you’re faced with the reality that your life is not what you thought it was going to be.

It is an emotional crisis of identity and self-confidence. You’re faced with the feeling that maybe you’re not being true to who you are, but you’re not quite sure who you’re supposed to be, either. Whether you’re nearing your thirties or just graduated from college, the crisis comes about when you feel like you have no idea who you are or what you’re supposed to be doing.

Is this really a quarter-life crisis… Or do I need to just get over myself?

I’ve heard this question from many of my clients. While they’re struggling in every aspect of their personal lives, if they’re still able to get up and go to work, and they’re only sad “half the time,” then they think that don’t have any reason to complain.

You’ve heard the story of your 20s over and over again. These years are supposed to be easy and carefree. You’re supposed to have a crappy job and “pay your dues.” You’re supposed to live in a tiny apartment with roommates that eat all your food and stay out all night. You’re supposed to date a bunch of different people who just want to “hang” but not “commit to anything too serious right now.”

You have no right to complain… Right?

This is supposed to be the best time of your life… Right?

These assumptions are why it can be so hard for young people to seek help. Some feel like if they’re not clinically depressed, or if their entire lives are not falling apart, then they have no business complaining about their troubles. Others seek help from family only to be told that they should be happy with what they have. Some go to their friends, but the last thing they want to do is talk about their troubles especially when the night is young and other distractions intercede.

Whatever the case may be, whatever led you to read this article, if you are struggling, if you’re feeling lost and unsure about what you want to do with your life, or you stop feeling excited about things that used to make you happy, then you have the right to call whatever you’re going through whatever you want.

No, I don’t think you need to get over yourself, and no I don’t think you need to just stuff your feelings inside and hope that they go away. Whether you want to call it—a crisis or not—this is your mind and body’s way of telling you that something is wrong.

You have the right to your feelings and you have the right to want to change what isn’t working in your life.

Now that we’ve established that you have the right to have a quarter-life crisis, what are you going to do about it? I believe everyone has the right to have a crisis, hit the wall and say, “I’m done with ______________.” It takes a lot of courage to say to yourself, “I don’t like this job, and I deserve something better.” Or, “This relationship makes me feel bad about myself, and I deserve to be loved completely.”

It’s one thing to say to yourself you’re not happy, and it’s another to do something about it.

What do I do, or not do, about this crisis?

Like anything else in life, admitting you have a problem is always the first step. The next step is trying to figure out exactly how you’re going to move through this transitional time in your life.

Let’s start with the DON’TS:

1) Don’t start making too many changes at once.

You’re starting to come to the realization that one or more aspects of your life need to change. You may hate your job. You may hate your apartment. You may hate your friends. You may hate the city you live in. All these things may be true, but before you tell your boss, your friends and your roommate that they can go ______________________ (you can use your imagination)… well, just please don’t.

It’s part of our nature to want to start making corrections the minute we realize our mistake, but in this case, not making a rash decision is the first step. Trust that you won’t be in this job, apartment, relationship or city for the rest of your life. But if you don’t know what you want your future to look like just yet, don’t start to make decisions that will affect your future.

2) Don’t run from your life.

When we’re not happy with ourselves, we tend to want to run away. It’s OK to feel like you want to grab your passport, pick an exotic location and never come back, but it’s not going to solve your problems. Sure, you’ll be in a new environment with new people and experiences, but a lesson I learned when I was 18 still sticks with me today: Wherever you go, there you are.

Whatever you are struggling with now is going with you wherever you go. All of your insecurities and fears—yep, that’s right—they’re going to follow you. Running away from your problems and yourself is a temporary solution to a permanent problem.

3) Don’t compare.

I understand deleting all your social media apps might feel like a dagger to the heart, but each time you want to go on Facebook, Instagram, or any form of social media, please proceed with caution.

When you’re going through this difficult transition, you’re going to want to compare yourself to the people around you. The problem is that social media is all smoke and mirrors. People post pictures, videos and updates of the best moments of their lives.

It’s our perpetual “first date, job interview, dinner with the future in-laws” selves.

Social media is not real life.

This is your life and your journey and comparing yourself is just going to get you confused and caught up in someone else’s world. You need to focus on you and what you want, not what you think will impress people on Facebook or what you think you “should” be doing.

4) Don’t ‘should’ yourself to death.

Stop thinking in terms of what you think your 20s “should” look like and start to think about what you need to do today to create meaning in your life and guide you to a future that feels hopeful.

This is where I see most twenty-somethings get tripped up. They feel this pull to create a life that they “think” they should have, instead of creating a life that feels authentic to them.

Now for the DO’S:

1) Do acknowledge that you’re going to feel afraid.

You’re not going to be able to go through this process without feeling fear.

We need our fear. This is our body’s natural response to danger, it’s an alarm that goes off when you feel threatened, under pressure or are facing a stressful situation.

Fear in moderation is a good thing. It’s what motivates us to wake up in the morning and go to work for fear of losing our job and not being able to pay our bills. Fear of getting hit by a car prompts us to run across the street to avoid traffic.

The problem is that when we are faced with a scary choice or decision, such as quitting our job and pursuing our dream of being a stand-up comedian, we also feel fear. But we mistake that fear with “Danger! Get out of here! Don’t do this!”

Recognize the fear, acknowledge it and then push forward. One of my favorite sayings is: If you’re not afraid, you’re not doing it right. 

2) Do recognize that the solution is not going to come overnight.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to find a solution to this problem ASAP so you can check it off your list and move onto the next thing. Unfortunately, the quarter-life crisis doesn’t work that way. You’re not going to be able to figure out what you want and what you want your life to look like overnight.

Don’t despair. Trust that this phase is not going to be the rest of your life, but in order for you to get through this transition, you’re going to need to start making some decisions.

3) Do start making some decisions.

If you’ve ever read any of my blogs or articles about the twenty-something years, you’ve heard me say this many times: “Making decisions in your 20s can feel like a double-edged sword.”

On one hand, it can feel like your choices are limitless. You’re away from your parents, out of college, maybe unmarried with no children, so there’s nothing stopping you from traveling the world, moving across the country or dyeing your hair 15 different colors.

This is an exciting but overwhelming feeling.

Remember that these choices are a double-edged sword—the downside is that once you make a choice or you choose a certain path, you’ll be giving up all the other options available to you, and that will feel like a loss.

That feeling of loss will make you start to doubt your choice. The problem is that most of us mistake that feeling of loss for regret, and then we start thinking that our original decision is a loss.

Anytime you have to make a choice between two (or more) things, it’ll feel like a loss. This loss is not regret, or an omen to change your mind, it’s a natural feeling of sadness for the road not traveled.

You have to accept now that you will not be able to travel down every road and remember that no matter what choice you make, it’s right for you at this time of your life.

Because it’s the choice you made.

4) Do start working on a plan of action. 

While you may want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head until this “quarter-life crisis thing” is finally over, that’s not going to make it go away.

I’m sure you have a lot of decisions to make and a lot of choices to choose from which can feel overwhelming. I always recommend to my clients to just pick one area (at a time) to focus on.

While you may be super annoyed at your roommates, or your love life is not what you want it to be, it may be that your job makes you feel utterly miserable. So start with your career.

Start taking some time to think about whether or not it’s your particular career path that’s making you unhappy or maybe it’s where you work. As you begin to clarify what’s making you feel dissatisfied, you’ll start to see what you need to do.

Then you have to do it!

Don’t stop at the “planning phase.” My favorite Marie Forleo quote is: “Insight without action is worthless.” Once you’ve gained the insights, you need to make a change. Unless you act on it, then you’ll find yourself stuck in this same place one year, two years, five years from now…

And I know you don’t want that.

5) Do Seek Help

As I mentioned earlier, sometimes our families and friends—while well-meaning—have an unintended effect of reinforcing our old habits and patterns. And those can keep us stuck or resistant to change.

Now, I’m not saying “don’t talk to your friends or parents!” Quite the contrary! Do seek the comfort and wisdom of those that support you. But be discerning about what your changes might mean to someone else, so you know for sure that the advice you’re getting is actually supporting you.

For example, if your parents have a substantial financial investment in your current career path, it might come as a shock to them if you feel that this path is no longer right for you. Or sometimes even well-meaning friends, some of whom might be experiencing their own crises, have trouble offering neutral advice about ways in which you want to make a change. Perhaps they’re afraid of losing you as a friend if the change you desire would cause you to relocate.

It can be very helpful at this time to get support from someone who is dedicated to your healing and recovery through this crisis and can offer you a neutral perspective. Therapy and/or coaching can provide you with guidance and the directed support you need to navigate this time.

Keep in mind that therapy and coaching are different. Coaching can help you define clear, actionable steps to take to make meaningful change in your career or your relationships. Therapy can help you with some of the underlying emotional issues that might be preventing you from moving forward. Most offer a free consultation, so be sure to take advantage of that offer to find the right therapist or coach for you.

In Conclusion: You Never Go Back to Square One

When I was going through my own quarter-life crisis, I thought that I would never feel “normal” again. I believed I had to stick with the career path I had chosen over 10 years earlier when I was in high school, because I had put so much time and effort into it. I thought I would have to “start over” again which felt like a huge hill to climb.

Once I was able to let go of my fears and stop focusing on “starting over” then gradually something shifted. I discovered that I wasn’t starting over. I wasn't that naïve, unsure 22 year-old. I knew what hard work was. I knew what it was like to lose someone. I knew the value of friends.

I started a new career, but I didn’t start over.

There is an expression I use with my clients now when they feel fearful of making a big career move or life change: “You never go back to square one.” I like to think of a career trajectory like a board game. As you learn and grow at work, you are moving one square closer to the “finish” line. There are times when you need to take a detour or you get stuck on a square for a while. There will also be times when you draw a bad card and you are sent all the way back to the beginning.

You can do this! I believe in you.

Remember, I’m always here to help. I can help evaluate whether you need coaching or therapy. If you’re unsure whether you require therapy or coaching, or possibly both, click here to schedule your FREE 20-minute consultation so we can discuss your needs.