If you're somewhere between your mid-20s and 30s, you might be experiencing a serious low point in your life. A trial of confused identity, misguided purpose and hopeless transition. And, if you're anything like me, you feel lost, anxious and panicked. But you're not alone, even if it feels that way, and there are plenty of ways to make riding it out a little easier. Illustration by Sam Woolley. Photos by Boudewijn Berends, Nicola Sap De Mitri, Heath Cajandig, Aditya Doshi, Steven Pisano and Gareth Thompson.
My Own Quarter-Life Crisis, And Why You're Not Alone
The monster I'm fighting has many heads: I question whether I'm pursuing the right career, if I shouldn't have given up on my last career or if I'll ever be happy with any career. I've had more than 10 jobs in various fields since I graduated high school, including work in IT, night security, carpentry, gold mining, retail, restaurant service and as a professional actor.
Now I'm a writer, and it's great, but I still have no idea if it's right for me or not. Over the last year and a half I've moved to a new city, ended a four year-long relationship and switched apartments three more times -- questioning myself every step of the way. I look in the mirror and ask, "What the hell am I doing?" "I was supposed to be a [dream profession of the week] by now…" Things haven't shaken out the way I expected they would.
I'm desperate to hold onto the youth I feel slipping through my fingers, yet I want nothing more than the fabled stability adulthood brings. It's a gut-wrenching feeling of fear, uncertainty and an overwhelming desire for everything to just "be OK", even though I don't know what that means yet. But I do know I'm not the only one out there that feels like this. This monster is the quarter-life crisis, and it is very real for a lot of young people.
If you feel the same way I do, it helps to know why this time in your life is so turbulent in the first place. Ran Zilca, the Chief Data Science Officer at Happify and author of Ride of Your Life: A Coast-to-Coast Guide to Finding Inner Peace, suggests that it all starts with how you're treated in your late 20s and early 30s. You're probably recently out of school, or just starting a career. Maybe you're living alone and paying your own way for the first time, but despite your best efforts, you're getting mixed signals from society at large. Older people consider you a "kid" and respect you as much as one. And if you're a "millennial", a phrase with meanings that vary depending on who uses it, you get even less respect.
It's hard to make the smooth transition to a "real" adult when the world keeps telling you that you're not one. It manifests into a type of "imposter syndrome" that's hard to shake. Yet, as Zilca explains, you still feel trapped in a "pretend adulthood", where you make commitments and try to mature, but you never reap the benefits. Eventually, you spread yourself too thin, and it all unravels.
What Psychologists Say About The Quarter-Life Crisis
According to a recent study titled Emerging adulthood, early adulthood and quarter-life crisis: Updating Erikson for the 21st Century, by Dr Oliver Robinson at the University of Greenwich, this time in your life breaks down into five main phases:
- Phase One: You feel trapped by your life choices, like your job, relationship or both. You're living on "autopilot".
- Phase Two: You get a sense of "I've got to get out of this" and feel a growing sense that change is possible if you just take a leap.
- Phase Three: You quit the job, end the relationship or break the commitment that's making you feel trapped. Then you detach and enter a "time out" period where try to rediscover who you are and who you want to be.
- Phase Four: You begin rebuilding your life slowly but surely.
- Phase Five: You develop new commitments that are more in line with your interests and aspirations.
Most people come out the other end in a better mental state, but this period of limbo can still result in a lot of pain and confusion. In fact, as Zilca notes, the average age for the onset of depression has gradually slid younger, from the late 40s to the mid-20s over the last 30 years, and psychologists think the quarter-life crisis is partially to blame.
To add insult to injury, Dr Robinson says the dilemma tends to affect a certain type of person the most: Those who try. If you're driven to succeed, have strong ideals and set goals you want to achieve by certain points in your life, you're a prime candidate for the disappointment and confusion such a crisis often brings. Basically, by doing my best and shooting for the stars, I've set myself up to be disappointed. I'm sure many of you can relate.
What You're Going Through Is Totally Normal
It always helps me to know that I'm not alone. And as Paul Angone, the author of All Groan Up: Searching for Self, Faith, and a Freaking Job!, says, experiencing a crisis in your late 20s is like having gas after a steak and cheese burrito -- it's practically inevitable, and you're not the first person to feel this way.
Happy, successful people from all walks of life have experienced similar crises. Even your parents likely went through what you're going through now. In fact, it wasn't until I talked to my dad about his late 20s that I started to feel better. It turns out that he was just as confused and stressed out at times, but he made it through OK and he's even better now. People pretend that success or contentedness is all they have ever known, rarely willing to divulge their past struggles, but it's merely a projection. Nathan Gehlert, PhD, a psychologist in Washington DC suggests that it also helps to seek solidarity and talk to friends who might be feeling the same way:
The best and first thing you should do if you're feeling stuck and unhappy is to start talking to your friends. I struggled similarly in my 20s -- it helped me remember that my perception of 'falling behind' wasn't really accurate.
The discussions I have with my friends usually circle around the same things: We think we know what we want out of life, but we don't know how and we don't know when it will happen. Still, the fact that we can talk about it with each other makes it almost feel like a team effort; like I'm not the only lost child in a group of fine-tuned adults who've got it all figured out. Gehlert also recommends confiding in a mentor outside of your job -- someone you can be completely honest with. Your situation is not unique, no matter how lost you feel. Countless people have made it through, and so will you.
Use This Turbulence To Work On Your Emotional Intelligence
We asked clinical psychologist Jeffrey DeGroat, PhD, for tips on surviving this juncture in life, and he explained that the true source of this type of crisis is often within us, not our surroundings. To fix this, DeGroat advises that you work on improving yourself and the way you handle situations that stress you out. The benefits of emotional intelligence are well known, and it's a major part of dealing under duress. In fact, according to two recent analyses, one in the journal Psychological Perspectives and the other in the journal Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioural Sciences, emotional intelligence is the best skill you can have while going through this transition. It lets you react to your feelings without you losing control and letting your emotions get away from you.
The researchers suggest the ability to regulate your emotions will come with age and experience, but you can focus on a few major components to speed up the process. Start by being more self-aware of how you're feeling, and how you react to the people and situations you face. If you struggle with it, start a journal and put your thoughts and feelings on paper. Writing about how I feel -- like this -- has helped me a great deal. Be aware of what you say too. Listen to the words you use and reflect on them. How do you sound? How would you interpret what you said? Put yourself in uncomfortable situations and be mindful of how you handle them. Develop a healthy perspective on your life, stop pitying yourself and harness the awesome powers of gratitude. We all get stressed, but if you can step back and appreciate the good around you, you'll see that life probably isn't so bad. You aren't your emotions. Just because you feel lost right now doesn't mean that you are, or that you'll always feel that way.
Tackle What's Making You Feel Trapped Directly
There's no way to skip through what you're going through any more than there's a way to skip this time in your life. According to Robinson, you can, however, acknowledge the phases, give in and rip the proverbial scab off to begin the recovery process. The first phase of your crisis is the feeling of being "locked in", so you need to identify what's making you feel that way, then address it. But before you go making any drastic changes in your life, DeGroat suggests you try to work on what's bothering you first:
When I meet with people in their twenties who feel lost, uncertain and uninspired in their life, they often believe that if they make a change in their life, they will find direction, certainty, and inspiration in their life. In my work with these individuals, there are several common changes people decide to make, including leaving their significant other, changing jobs, and moving to a new city. Unless these changes help someone leave a truly toxic situation, I often find that the person's unhappiness persists even after they make the change.
So before you go quitting your job, look into ways you can make the most of the job you have. If you feel like you're not making any upward progress, DeGroat suggests that you research the positions you're interested in. Look into official job duties, talk to people who have those jobs and ask for guidance from managers on what you should focus on. If you feel like the field you're in isn't for you, Nicole Crimaldi, the author of the advice blog Ms Career Girl, suggests that you look into various side hustles or volunteer work, and test the waters of your other interests and career paths instead of diving right in. I started writing, for example, when I had free time while working in an office. It started out as a hobby that turned into freelance opportunities, and now it's my job. Sure, I took a chance and jumped off a career cliff, but I had a parachute. If you have a university degree, don't let it define you or what you're capable of. I have a fine arts degree in theatrical performance, and here I am, so... You never what you'll like or what you might be good at unless you give it a try.
If your relationship is what's making you feel stuck, see if you can fix the main problems that are making you unhappy before you tap out. DeGroat suggests that you recognise that the problem may be with you, and that positive change can be as simple as altering your behaviour. For example, you might feel like your girlfriend is a homebody and gets in the way of the things you want to do -- like going out with friends. In that case, DeGroat suggests you're actually trapping yourself, and you should simply do those things instead of breaking up with her because you couldn't be assertive. Of course, some things aren't meant to be. If you've already tried to fix your relationship issues, recognise when it's time to call it quits and move on.
And before you move somewhere new, do some serious research to make sure you're not just suffering the "grass is greener" syndrome and it won't be worse there. As soon as you address at least one major thing that's making you feel trapped, you can jump from phase one to phase three almost instantly and begin rebuilding your life.
Don't Dwell On Other People's Lives, or Their Highlight Reels
It's also important that you don't compare yourself to other people too much -- especially those who have more visible success. I struggle with this constantly, and let me tell you, nothing drags you down more than obsessing over the impressive feats and possessions of someone your own age, or younger.
Stop poring over people's Facebook and Instagram albums in envy. Those are just highlight reels. Don't let biographies of famous people who starred in feature films or conquered countries or won Olympic gold at your age frustrate you because you're taking longer to figure things out. If you can't find a way to use those stories for inspiration, stay away from them. And don't feel obligated to search for "the one" just because so many of your friends are getting married. I almost gave in to that mindset with my ex, but I know it would have been the wrong choice.
Everyone has their own path in life, and you should focus on yours, not someone else's. DeGroat notes that this time of your life also means becoming more aware of what you're interests are, rather than the interests others might have in you. So when you find something you like, go with it. The sooner you let go of what others expect of you the better.
Manage Your Expectations And Be Realistic About What You Can Change
Unfortunately, Robinson and Zilca point out that the phases of the quarter-life crisis can actually repeat several times during your 20s and 30s. So when you reach phase four, the rebuilding phase, it's vital that you don't set yourself up to repeat the same mistakes. You need to manage your expectations and put those unrealistic ideas of how your life is "supposed to be" to bed. You shouldn't give up on your dreams, but be fluid and adaptable in your pursuit of those dreams. Stop thinking of your life like "I'm not where I'm supposed to be," and more like "I'm where I'm supposed to be right now." From my experience, I can tell you that this is the hardest part. But a little acceptance goes a long way.
This time of your life is a period of transition, and you need to keep yourself grounded. You can't fix everything instantly, so be patient and set realistic goals that you know you can achieve. If you, say, have crippling debt, just focus on getting a strategy in motion. Kill the fantastical hope you'll get a "big pay day" down the road that will wipe it all out, and sit down to make a plan. Once you start creating realistic, manageable plans to deal with your biggest stressors, you'll have a much easier time keeping yourself out of the same type of crisis in the future. The transition into adulthood might suck, but I know we'd definitely be worse off if it never came.