Are You Having a Quarter Life Crisis?

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If you’re a 28 year old who describes yourself to others as feeling purposeless and confused, you may have some older relatives or friends dismissively tell you that your 20’s and 30’s should be the best years of your life! But what if these years feel like some of your hardest yet? I’m talking about the relatively new concept of the Quarter Life Crisis. For some it brings to mind the image of a whiny, entitled millennial, but societal and structural factors have made it harder than ever to deal with the pressure and decisions that go along with being in your 20’s and 30’s. Feeling unsure, stuck, and lonely in your 20’s and 30’s is fairly typical. The good news is you don’t have to have all the answers right now! You are capable of not only accepting, but also enjoying the journey this age brings, even if you’re not quite sure where you are going. 

Why do I feel this way now?

There’s a reason the Quarter Life Crisis concept is new. In previous generations there simply weren’t as many choices, so there was less room for doubt. People rarely dated outside their circle of acquaintances, and weren’t left to wonder if they should not have settled for their college boyfriend because there might be someone better on Tinder. Gender roles were more fixed. Once couples were formed it was clear that they would have children, and which parent would take care of them. It’s great we are moving away from these rigid expectations, but it leads to lots of questions: Do I even want a partner? Do I want more than one? Do I want kids? If I do, who will take care of them? Who’s in charge of the finances? No wonder we aren’t sure what to do! Therapist, writer, and all around wise woman Esther Perel writes about these topics frequently. She makes a great point that while these choices used to be handed down by family and power structures, now these social norms are negotiable.

Because so many options exist, I find my clients often describe themselves as “feeling stuck.” In order to get unstuck, it helps to step back and examine your life. This means assessing your strengths, abilities, and resources. Next comes the harder part: you must evaluate your limitations, the problems you face and what in your life is unsatisfying. In order to do this kind of reflection without sinking into despair, it’s important to try to minimize the degree to which you compare yourself to others, and to avoid extreme thinking.

Social media and comparisons

If I scroll through my social media on any given day I see many examples of “milestone markers” such as acceptance letters from graduate school, new business cards, engagement photos, and birth announcements. While meeting these milestones may be worthy goals, the timeline can cause anxiety. You’re not alone in those feelings, but by re-examining your perception of having to accomplish things by a certain age, you may start to feel better.

If you ask five different 28-year-olds about their romantic relationships, careers, friendships, and finances, you are likely to get five significantly different answers. If you’re not engaged and expected you would be by 28, you might be hyper aware of the engagement rings on your Instagram feed. What might not be obvious is that while you envy the girl with the fiancé, she might be looking at your post of a group of friends, lamenting about how hard it has been for her to make friends as an adult. Similarly, if you’re struggling with jealousy about your friends’ careers, you might not have considered that someone with that full time salaried position that you covet might be jealous of you and your social media posts that reflect the great relationship you have with your family. Social media makes it very easy to focus on our own deficits.

Antidote #1: Try Gratitude

A wonderful antidote to jealousy and comparison is gratitude. I often tell clients to remind themselves that most people don’t take pictures when they are feeling unhappy. Your social media feed is a carefully curated section of moments people post that show their best selves. A quick gratitude exercise for users of social media: next time you find yourself frustrated looking at everyone else’s “perfect” life, I encourage you to look at your own. There are probably some pretty happy moments you have shared too. Try to go back to one of these moments and cultivate a sense of gratitude. In addition, it can be helpful to make a list of three things you are grateful for each day in a gratitude journal. Don’t just think about it, write it down! They can be as important as your partner or best friend, or as small as the cute dog you saw on the street. The little things count! Then when you have a day where it feels like everyone else is doing better than you, thumb through your journal and remember all the little things that make your days special.

Antidote #2: Avoiding extreme thinking 

As a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, I try to help clients avoid thinking in extremes. One pattern people fall into is black and white thinking. Therefore, when I hear a client say, “I have no idea what I’m doing!” or “My life is a total mess!” I encourage them to question this sentiment. Most people can come up at least one or two parts of their life that they feel good about. Another cognitive error is mislabeling. For example, just because you have the thought “I’m a failure” doesn’t mean that it’s a fact. Recognizing that you get to choose which thoughts you latch onto can help can help prevent you from getting into crisis mode, where it becomes easy to head towards a downward rumination spiral.

In addition, I recommend trying to break down your desires into goals that are tangible. Saying “I need to get my life together” is a tall order. Whereas “I want to get a new job that is more intellectually stimulating” is more manageable, and you might be able to brainstorm specific steps that will get you there. Expecting to be “over” a break-up in a few weeks might be unrealistic, but having a few consecutive days where you don’t stalk your ex on the internet can be done.

Nevertheless, even when you’re able to sit back and feel grateful or think a bit more rationally, that doesn’t make the need to make these big decisions go away. Up next in Part 2 of this series: How to tackle these pesky big decisions that we all face.  

Julia Lawerence LMSW, is a therapist at A Good Place. Find out more about her here!