I was listening to a popular morning talk show on the radio the other day and they had a segment on young adults who are experiencing what they called a “quarter-life crisis.” This is that season of life in your mid-20’s when you might have just graduated from college or have a year or two of working under your belt, and life just doesn’t seem to be coming together like you planned. You worked hard for a degree—had hopes and dreams of changing the world—but now find yourself working at Starbucks to pay the bills. You had to move back in with your parents. You thought you would have found “Mr. Right” or “Mrs. Right” by now but instead you are faced with a dismal dating life. All over Facebook it looks like ALL of your friends are moving on with life, getting jobs, promotions, houses, fiancés, babies, vacations…and then there is you, feeling lost, confused, disappointed, and defective. You want to feel happy for those friends but you are sure that you just can’t take one more post that reads, “65 more days till we tie the knot!”
This problem does not just hit women, although I think we women have a greater tendency to have that internal “plan” for relationships and family. Guys can also experience this crisis, which often centers around having a job, money, and possessions—a feeling of accomplishment. I haven’t even mentioned those whose life threw them a curveball with an unexpected pregnancy or untimely death of a loved one and they are still trying to play catch-up to make sense of what things look like now.
Have I effectively painted the quarter-life crisis for you? Maybe it’s because I have experienced this crisis myself. I have probably spent a good portion of my 20’s coming to terms with the fact that “my plan” has not happened the way I have thought I wanted or expected. Our world is different than it was when our parents were young adults. Media and technology have given us a way to see into each other’s lives with startling detail. Hollywood and culture have taught us since we were young about the “American dream,” and we should “reach for the stars because your potential is endless.” While it has become more culturally acceptable to live with your parents after college to save money or to “still be single” at 30, the American cultural expectations of those past generations still linger, creating a great deal of incongruence in the expectations of young adults today. The reality is that our economy is not the same as it used to be—jobs are harder to find and if you do find a job, it is most likely not that dream job you have come to expect. Dating is completely different than it was during our parents’ generation. If you are not someone who likes to go out to bars to meet people, it appears your only other choice is to try online dating. And if you have been taught traditional, even “Southern” ways of doing things, online dating is a horse pill to swallow. As in, it gets stuck and lodged and you feel like you might suffocate from disappointment.
From my own experience, as well as working with others who have gone through this conflict, I believe that much of the pain of this season comes down to disappointed expectations. Yes, the economy is bad and it is not fair you can’t get that job you want. Yes, that guy hasn’t stepped up and asked you out. But the conflict you are feeling is coming from the perspective that your value and worth as a person—your IDENTITY—has been somehow lessened because of what your life looks like. If your sense of self, value, and worth comes from the external, and the external is not going your way, well, then that will yield all kinds of sadness, angry, confusion, and despair. Left unattended, those feelings will fester into full-blown depression, anxiety, panic attacks, or a range of impulsive behavior.
So what CAN you do?
- GET HELP! One of the things I love about counseling is that it is safe to say all of these things to someone who is outside of your world, doesn’t have an emotional opinion about what is going on with you, but can also hold up a mirror and help you evaluate what expectations and goals might need to change. It is important to be able to both name and grieve the loss of what you thought life was while also exploring what it could be. Additionally, if you feel lost about what you want to do with your life, you can also work with your counselor on using specific tools to explore your options. We have an assessment here at Fountain Gate called the Strong’s Interest Inventory that is a great tool for exploring career interests. We love to work with these issues!
- Create new goals and expectations—this time about things that are related to the present and that are directly in your control. Start volunteering with an agency that does the kind of work you’d like to do. Swallow the pill and join an online dating service. Make a bucket list of things you’d like to do for FUN before you are 30 or 40 and commit to doing one of them over the next 3 months. Goals like this one are realistic but still moving towards the kind of life you want for yourself. You could even explore new hobbies or interests outside of your normal box through online deals like, Groupon or Living Social, that often have interesting activities to try! The point is, live in the present.
- Take a break from social media. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all have some great benefits, but one of their terrible downsides is it can create the illusion of everyone else’s life “being better” than yours. It can be healthy to step away from that for a while—get perspective, focus on what is going well in your life and learn to be thankful for what IS going “right.”
- Explore spirituality—those values and beliefs have a tremendous impact on how you choose to live your life and what meaning you place on life in general. Going on a spiritual retreat weekend or getting involved in a group that explores these issues is a great way to get outside your own perspective and consider what God might have to say.
If you are reading this article and this is NOT you, but you know someone who might be experiencing these difficulties, one thing that you can do is LISTEN. Avoid advice giving and allow that person a safe place to process what they are going through before you jump into telling them your solution. That will usually make things worse.
One of the great things about the phrase “quarter-life crisis” is that there is an implication that we still have another ¾’s of our life to live. Life is not over! This season is simply about getting unstuck by coming to terms with what it is now and finding new ways to move forward from a different perspective than in the past. While painful, naming it for what it is and processing through it will create space to move forward in your life.