It’s a real and increasingly recognized process that more than 50 percent of people go through in the first decade of adult life, and while not defined as a mental illness, can certainly spiral into episodes when your mental health is impacted.
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What exactly is a quarter-life crisis?
In her Netflix special, comedian Taylor Tomlinson, who is halfway through her 20s, describes a quarter-life crisis as the time that you’re “too old to party, too young to settle down.”
Giving a different perspective, psychologist Oliver Robinson explains that “it’s essentially any transitional episode that a young adult experiences that typically lasts a year or so, during which time they are emotionally unstable. Anything from changing social groups to breaking up with a partner comes with an overriding sense of grief which has to be dealt with in order for that person to move on.”
He adds that the crisis often serves as a crucial turning point in a person’s life. This change in direction often includes a career move.
Who is at risk?
More women than men in their 20s experience a crisis episode, at 49 percent and 39 percent respectively, Robinson found in a separate study. Triggers for men were reported to be work-related, while it was more common for women to experience crises due to relationship and family matters.
Still, it’s age that’s the common denominator.
In fact, psychology instructor and career coach Rebecca Fraser-Thill tells Bloomberg’s Elizabeth G. Dunn that a quarter-life career crisis actually makes sense. “In early adulthood, we tend to gravitate toward careers modeled on the people closest to us: what adult family members do for a living or what our friends plan to do. Our 20s take us through a process of ‘individuation,’ where we gain a better sense of our own values and talents. That’s when the itch sets in.”
The decade between childhood and adulthood (the latter still typically defined as being when you’ve settled down and started having kids) is confusing at best, and psychologists say people today are suffering more than previous generations did, writes life coach Ran Zilca. “For instance, the average age for the onset of depression has dropped from late 40s or early 50s, where it was 30 years ago, to mid-20s, and it’s expected to drop further.”
Am I having a quarter-life crisis?
There are certainly symptoms you can look for if you think you may be heading toward or already in the depths of a quarter-life crisis. Generally, you’ll be dissatisfied with your life choices, direction, and quality. A sort of, is that it? feeling might permeate much of your outlook.
Specifics may include:
A lack of purpose, meaning and fulfillment
Struggling with pressure from parents
A desire for autonomy—you don’t want to be just a cog in a machine
Feeling overwhelmed by everyday life
Option paralysis—there are so many options open to you, you shut down
Striving to achieve the perfect work-life balance , and seemingly always falling short
Social media makes you feel less-than and panicked
How to make smart career moves during a quarter-life crisis
In order to move through and beyond a quarter-life crisis, you may need a little objective advice. In his book, The Quarter-Life Breakthrough: Invent Your Own Path, Find Meaningful Work, and Build a Life That Matters, Adam "Smiley" Poswolsky, says he felt trapped in his perfect job at the Peace Corps in Washington, DC. Promoted often, he travelled, he had health insurance and job security and was making $70,000 at the age of 28. He was miserable.
It took him a year before he did anything about it, and in his book, he tells other young people that it’s okay to leave a job everyone else thinks is awesome, and that it’s okay to not know exactly what you want and to invent your own path. His 10-step workbook is a valuable (free) guide to how you can turn your crisis into a breakthrough.
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Clinical psychologist Lara Fielding says “technology as a constant source of reassurance may also be paradoxically contributing to reductions in a necessary amount of tolerance of uncertainty.” We’re a generation of instant gratification Googlers, searching online for immediate answers. The problem is that when you’re entering adulthood, with its new realities and uncertainties, there is no dependable source of absolute information, and our intolerance of uncertainty causes fear.
Fielding offers an exercise that helps you develop skills to tolerate uncertainty. While tolerating uncertainty won’t solve your quarter-life crises, it can make going through it less stressful and bring clarity to decision-making.
And if you’re at a complete loss as to what you want to do with your life and what you’re actually interested in, career change coach Alice Stapleton says take action anyway. Explore everything. Take courses and go to conferences, read job profiles, interview people about their careers, think about why you read the books you read, why you watch the shows you watch and listen to the music you do to determine your interests. You may just find the spark necessary to change your life.
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