We have all heard about a midlife crisis, commonly represented by the middle-aged man in a red sports car, or the older woman having an affair with her tennis instructor. But what about a quarter life crisis? More and more people in their 20s and 30s feel like they are dealing with midlife crisis symptoms long before they ever reach midlife. Is it really possible to go through a quarter life crisis?
The short answer is, yes, a quarter life crisis is entirely possible. The 20s and 30s are often thought of as an energetic, exciting period of life, dedicated to finding love, building a career, starting a family, and following your dreams. But the pressure to do these things, or seeing others achieve them while you’re not, can lead to stress, anxiety and even depression. As the incidences of people in this age group who are dealing with these feelings rises, more and more people are experiencing what has been dubbed a quarter life crisis.
What Is A Quarter-Life Crisis?
Although the 20s and 30s are a time for growth and opportunity, they are also full of perceived mile-stones that many feel they need to meet in order to be considered successful. The expectations that you will, during these years, begin a successful career and rise through the ranks, find a partner, start a family, and settle into a home, are a lot for many to take. And they aren’t always realistic. Life doesn’t operate on a set schedule, yet failure to check off these unspoken boxes can send many people into a panic.
But it’s not just the unfulfilled expectations that can throw a person into a state of panic and result in a quarter life crisis - the achievement of these things can do the same for some. When your life has been about working toward things and dreams, and you suddenly find yourself saddled with a career, a spouse, kids, and a mortgage, many people look around and feel trapped. This boxed in feeling can have the same effect as the failure to check the boxes.
But the same way that a midlife crisis is more than just a time of transition and reordering of priorities, a quarter life crisis is more than just stress and anxiety over what you have or don’t have. It’s actually very common to feel a certain amount of pressure and concern during these younger years as well as have questions about who you are and what you really want. Ups and downs, questioning your plans and decisions, and changing your mind and direction are fairly normal. After all, what you do now has a large bearing on how the next stage of your life goes.
Dr. Kurt knows firsthand how this can feel. He, like many of us, experienced turbulence during those years and worked his way through it. When discussing it he had this to say.
One of the most important things (if not the most important thing) that happens during our 20s and 30s is figuring out who we are. Developing our identity and becoming comfortable with who we are and how we see ourselves is a critical step in our development and future happiness. Usually at the root of a quarter-life crisis lies uncertainty, discomfort or unhappiness with who we are as a person. The pressure to meet or conform to our own expectations, those of those close to us, and that of society can be overwhelming. While this time of life can be fun and a bit care-free, it also can be pressure-packed, confusing, and depressing. My own journey included a crisis in early life as I had to face in my 20s failure in a business I'd started, a financial crisis, and how not to become the person I said I would never be - my dad. It's hard to look at my life today imagine that I struggled in my 20s and early 30s, but I did. A lot of us do. A quarter-life crisis can actually be an opportunity to build a strong foundation for your self-identity that will help you weather the storms that are sure to come later in life. It did so for me.”
A true crisis during the 20s and 30s is more extreme than general stress. Much like those who experience an actual midlife crisis, people who experience a quarter life crisis may find themselves unable to cope with their current situation and feel the need to make drastic changes to their lives.
Symptoms Of The Quarter Life Crisis
One of the most common and debilitating symptoms of a quarter life crisis is depression. The overwhelming feeling of failure and not having accomplished enough, or being lost and without a real direction and purpose at this age can lead to problems with depression and anxiety. The biggest danger here is that many, because of their youth, don’t recognize the problems they are experiencing. Even friends and family can have a hard time seeing it. The assumption is that at these ages people should be happy, driven, and energetic, so depression and anxiety are often overlooked, or met with request for medication from doctors to alleviate symptoms. Understanding that there is an underlying problem that needs to be addressed often seems less important than a quick fix.
Contributing to depression can be feelings of failure, feeling trapped, or loss of confidence in the ability to lead a meaningful life. Suffering with these feelings can be quite painful and difficult, potentially leading down a very dark path. Breaking free of these feelings can be tough without support and help in gaining a new perspective.
People suffering from a quarter life crisis may also exhibit any combination of the following behaviors.
- Problems with explosive anger, especially directed at their partner.
- Erratic behavior at work with a feeling that they have nothing to lose or have reached a dead end anyway.
- Obsession with the high school or college days and antics.
- Withdrawal from friends and social activity or,
- Becoming overly social and partying as a form of escapism and avoidance.
- Abusing alcohol or drugs or problems with other addictions.
- And depression, as mentioned earlier.
And where those going through a midlife crisis may feel desperate because time is passing, those experiencing a quarter life crisis may feel the opposite - like there’s too much time and there’s no pathway to the future.
How To Prevent A Quarter-Life Crisis
The best way to prevent a quarter life crisis, and even a midlife crisis, is to understand what you really want out of life and create a pathway to get it. Sounds simple, right? It’s not, because the road to satisfaction in life isn’t a straight one. In fact, it’s very crooked and requires adaptation along the way. This can be really difficult for some people.
One of the problems that can trip people up in their 20s and 30s is that goals, desires, and the things that they THINK make them happy can all change – and often do. These years are times of growth, deepening maturity, and new experiences. That might mean that if you thought you wanted to be a lawyer and then decide that you really prefer working with animals as you are in middle of law school, your whole world changes. And now choosing which path to take and what to do will require change – either of your mind or your circumstances.
But change is difficult, and accepting that something you thought you wanted out of life isn’t really what makes you happy, or that you have been working toward a goal you no longer want, or even that you made a choice to make someone else happy that you now feel stuck with, can cause many to spiral into crisis mode.
So being present in your life rather than passive or reactionary, being willing to adapt and be proactive, and embracing change as it’s needed, are your best defenses against a potential quarter life crisis. And resisting the urge to “check the boxes” unless it’s really a box you want to check, or envying the success of others. It’s your life and your beat – no need to dance to anyone else’s.
Does Having A Quarter-Life Crisis Mean I Won’t Have A Midlife One?
No, not necessarily. Although most of us will go through a transitional period during midlife, a crisis is not a given, even if you have experienced a quarter life crisis. In fact, it’s possible that if you effectively got through a crisis in your 20s or 30s you will have laid the ground work for a happy and healthy midlife transition.
That isn’t a given, however. Tragic events, illness, or other trauma can often precipitate a new set of problems that can escalate into a crisis if not managed correctly. If that’s the case, support and help from loved ones, family, or even a counselor is crucial.
It’s important to remember that life is full of challenges and stressors, however. Difficult times, confusion, and reevaluation of priorities are all normal and more prevalent at certain times of life than others. None of these things have to mean you are in crisis - quarter life or otherwise - just that you are managing your life and its ups and downs the same way everyone else is. Not every challenging period in life rises to the level of a crisis.
So if you are in your 20s or 30s and feeling like you are experiencing a quarter life crisis, take a moment to stop and recognize what’s going on. Then don’t be afraid to reset and create a new plan for success and a new definition of satisfaction. And, if you need it, ask for help. We all need that sometimes – at any (every) age.
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