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Putting The Quarter-Life Crisis Under A Microscope

In my early twenties, most of the conversations I had with my girlfriends centered around dating: Who we were sleeping with, who we wanted to be sleeping with, who we were pissed off at for ghosting us after sleeping with us… you get the picture. Years later, our conversations have slowly but surely shifted to a more introspective realm. What are we doing with our lives? Why are we doing it? How do we jump ship to pursue the thing we actually care about and magically make money doing it?

Of my core group of friends, I’m the only one who hasn’t left the 9-to-5 world to launch my own hustle (happily, I might add). But they all took the leap for similar reasons: Corporate-landia was a drag and the hours burned them out (we are the burnout generation, after all); they had creative convictions that traditional career paths stomped on (client feedback loops have a not-so-subtle way of making you question your talent); and, it turned out the job they dreamed about in their youth didn’t quite stack up to their expectation thanks to rampant sexism that blatantly held them back from promotions and inflexible schedules that kept them from pursuing passion projects. Queue the quarter-life crisis about how to escape the system, yet still bring in a paycheck.

I sensed that this experience couldn’t be unique to my circle of friends, so I set out to see just how pervasive the trend really was. Last week on Instagram I asked my followers if they’d ever experienced a quarter-life crisis, fully expecting the question to go unanswered thanks to the deluge of other social content available at any given moment. But to my shock and awe, 400+ responders weighed in and voted “yes, daily” to having a quarter-life crisis in my IG Story poll (a resounding 92 percent, BTW), and another 70+ individuals took to my inbox to share their personal stories of work-induced crises.

“I feel beyond burnt out,” one woman wrote to me. “I’m so sick of having to work three jobs to not be in debt. Between student loans, houses, cars, and credit card bills, how are we ever supposed to get ahead or pursue our dreams?”

Countless others seemed stuck on similarly lofty questions: “Is there anything that will fulfill my life or bring passion into what I do?” “At what point do we stop chasing our dreams?” “Do I still have time to achieve my goals? Am I even that talented or that deserving?”

A 32-year-old mom expressed frustration that the quarter-life crisis she experienced in her mid-twenties never fully went away. “There’s a myth that you magically figure it out, and it can be a rude awakening when you don’t,” she says. She also described the catch-22 many others echoed in my DMs: You can’t leave a job you hate if you don’t have the experience to go after the job you want.

What’s more surprising, these types of crises are happening before women even enter the workforce. Many college-aged gals responded about how they’ve already begun to feel the weight of the future: “There’s so much pressure for 20-somethings (especially women) to leave school and instantly become the power women we grew up idolizing. [After graduating] you have to get the job, stay fit, eat right, be funny, be smart. All these expectations make us forget to just be 20-somethings.”

Another shared, “I’m in law school and I have a daily crisis about how I’m ever going to afford anything. Why did I come to law school? I want to get married and have a house—when will I be able to afford that? I want to have kids—will I be able to take off time without jeopardizing my career?”

A reply from a 22-year old from Tunisia (along with an Argentinian ex-pat in Paris and a freelancer in the Dominican Republic) illustrated that this isn’t a uniquely American issue, either. “I have no idea what I want to do in life. I’ve thought about it countless times and I just can’t figure it out. I feel so lost—like I have no purpose. I just want to give up and take a nap.”

Does this represent a startling uptick in quarter-life crises—or were the generations before us just as lost and misguided in their twenties?

Short answer: It’s us. Dr. Lara Fielding, a behavioral psychologist and author of Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown Up, says research confirms quarter life crises are on the rise, and that there are three contributing factors at play: More options, more access, and more support (but less autonomy).

“Because millennials are the most educated generation in history, barriers to entry to many fields and occupations have been lowered,” Dr. Fielding says. “This means this generation has grown up believing—and rightly so—anything is possible. And when ‘anything is possible’, crap anything is possible! So, there’s more pressure, the tyranny of choice, and just a natural sense of being overwhelmed.”

“The internet and social media compound the problem with so much access to the perfectly curated lives of others. Our human tendency to turn to social comparisons in the absence of objective measures of success only exacerbates the anxiety. Lastly, while parents in the early ’90s were doing everything they believed would be helpful for their children to thrive, the increased time spent and offered support seems to have done some young adults a disservice. Emerging studies are finding that when parenting style blurs the line between support and over engagement, adult children report more anxiety, depression, and lower perceived self-worth. Sometimes, parents’ best intentions of support may impede opportunities for growth through failure.”

So, research has your back the next time you want to blame it all on your parents.

But more accurately, this paints a clearer picture of why so many of us are feeling this collective sense of anxiety mixed with ennui. How to identify if that’s what’s going on with you? Well, no two quarter-life crises are alike, but some general signs include feelings of insecurity, doubt, and uncertainty, specifically related to your career, relationships, and finances.

While some feelings of angst are a normal part of entering adulthood, Dr. Fielding says there’s evidence that uncertainty intolerance (UI) is also on the rise in emerging adults. According to R. Nicholas Carleton, Ph.D., a predominant researcher of UI, millennials may indeed be having more difficulties with uncertainty than previous generations.

Given all of that, how do we protect ourselves from these difficulties?

“The key to successfully navigating any life transition is to make sure we are using the correct skills for outside versus inside factors,” Dr. Fielding says.

“Career, relationships, and finances are the situations outside. Decision making around goals in these domains should be made from the position of one’s values. The question to ask is, ‘What kind of person do I want to be in this area of my life? What do I want to stand for?’ Then make commitments in line with those values.”

As a practice tip, she recommends setting goals in chunks of what would be optimal, what would be acceptable, and what would be barely passable to increase the likelihood of follow through.

“The next part is the trickier bit of working skillfully with the inside: the emotional stuff of insecurity and doubt. And this is the magic secret sauce that is highly counterintuitive. We now know from the science that emotions need a very particular kind of care, and it’s not what you think.”

The how, Dr. Fielding says, involves a simple three-step process: Validate, check, and change.

“First, validate your emotion by labeling it. This simple step has an amazing neurological impact on emotion regulation. Once you’ve labeled the emotion, be kind to yourself. Tell yourself it’s okay to feel the discomfort. Emotions—even the uncomfortable ones—are a normal part of being human.”

“Emotions might be thought of like small children we carry with us. If you ignore them too long, they will eventually start screaming to get your attention.”

“Second, check your thoughts for accuracy. Anchor your attention in the present moment. Discipline your mind from going down the rabbit hole of rumination and worry. And ask yourself ‘are my thoughts 100 percent true?'”

“Third, change your actions. Your actions are the only thing in your control. Make commitments to take care of your body, and use your body to inform your mind. I use the acronym MEANS (meditate, exercise, abstain from substances, nutrition, and sleep) to remind clients of the importance of preventative self-care to create a resilient body.”

This addresses the fear, doubt, and anxiety that so many of us experience. But something that was overwhelmingly clear in all the responses in my inbox was that there’s something specific to workplace burnout that can trigger a quarter-life crisis for many of us. It’s the inside intertwined with the outside.

One response that articulated this well came from a former teacher. “I left teaching for the same reason most teachers leave: Burnout. I was in a bilingual school writing curriculum in two languages working ridiculous hours. I had a moment where I realized I was depressed, not sleeping, and not taking care of myself. Something had to give.”

“In today’s busy and distracted environment, we need to build some emotional self-care into our routine to prevent burnout,” Dr. Fielding says. “The problem with our modern environment is it provides us with an overabundance of opportunities to avoid, control, and suppress our emotions. But, our emotions serve an important function in our motivation and overall life satisfaction. Emotions might be thought of like small children we carry with us. If you ignore them too long, they will eventually start screaming to get your attention. Your job as a caring parent is to find a balance between listening to the messages of your emotions, and not letting them decide every move you make in your day.”

Her final words of advice: Be careful about relating your self-esteem to a specific job title.

“Our concept of self (e.g. I am a professional, artist, CEO, founder, etc.) is a label like any other. It’s a shorthand communication. When we are overly attached to particular labels or positions in a hierarchy, we are by definition defending ourselves against some underlying vulnerability like insecurities and self-doubt. When self-esteem is tightly coupled with a job title, we become rigid, and thus less resilient to the stress of change and transition. One person’s status symbol means nothing in another context.

“It’s in the clinging to the external presentation that we are more vulnerable to the effects of stress. So rather than striving to eliminate the doubt and uncertainty with the self-esteem of a workplace title, treat yourself with self-compassion for the normal human place you are in. The practice is to kindly honor the messy vulnerable places inside, as you make behavioral decisions that are consistent with your values.

“At the end of the day, the key is to decide if you want traditional markers of ‘ambition’ or ‘success’ based on what you value—not what your parents or your friends value—and know that feelings of uncertainty and doubt are completely normal. And if you don’t have them, you might want to slow down and think about that for a second.”

If my interactions with strangers on Instagram taught me anything, it’s that there’s nothing more human than coming face-to-face with big, looming questions about the purpose of our lives (and if our work is fulfilling them). But, we could all use a gentle reminder that there’s no deadline for answering these queries. Open your mind to the possibility that your career may change once, twice, or 10 times over your lifetime. And stop the negative self-talk if your job is simply there to pay the bills and not checking off any profound boxes. Take a deep breath and exhale the unnecessary pressure to have a life plan perfectly in place. Because in truth, none of us have it figured out (even if we’re good at pretending we do).


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