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Am I Having a Quarterlife Crisis?

Why are my 20s and 30s so hard? Why do I feel so lost? I feel stuck…I’m not sure who I am or where I’m going. Confusion and anxiety are keeping me awake at night. I have so many questions about life and no answers. Am I having a quarterlife crisis? Help! 

If you’re a 20- or 30-something with similar thoughts and feelings, you’re not alone…and you’re probably in the thick of a life stage called quarterlife. Developmentally, quarterlife describes the unique challenges, experiences, and transitions individuals face from their late teens until their mid-30s(ish). Many folks in this age range can relate to the term “quarterlife crisis.” A quarterlife crisis describes a section (or entire miles) of the quarterlife path; a place in life that feels particularly rocky and difficult to navigate. 

Songwriters lament the pain of this ill-defined life stage. Satya Doyle Byock’s popular 2022 book Quarterlife: The Search for Self in Early Adulthood is based on her observations of universal struggles faced by quarterlifers in her psychotherapy practice. And while we’re pretty used to hearing the phrase “midlife crisis,” quarterlife has taken the discourse by storm as young millennials and Gen Zers wrestle with the complications of their 20s and 30s.

What makes quarterlife so hard? First, quarterlifers have to sort through the traditional ways our culture defines success in early adulthood, a checklist of life events including college, career, home ownership, marriage, and kids. These markers of success are either no longer relevant or plain unattainable—hello La Plata County, with your 2023 median home price of $640,000—or out of line with what’s important to many young adults. Emerging adults are tasked with trying to sort through these traditional markers and decide what, if anything, aligns with the life they want to build, all the while experiencing pressure to check the next box on the adulting list. 

Traditional markers also make a lousy map as they skip over the more important tasks of quarterlife: learning who you are, what’s important to you, and how to build a life you like. This is where the opportunity of quarterlife lies: on better days, your 20s and 30s offer a chance at self-discovery and healing. If you do your work in quarterlife, you gain the confidence and self-understanding you need to feel better about your life, yourself, and your future. (More on those important tasks and how to tackle them in a future blog post).

Those are the good days…but on the bad days, quarterlife can feel incredibly painful. The big questions about who you are and where you’re going feel overwhelming and are accompanied by difficult emotions like loneliness, confusion, anxiety, and depression. There are probably some painful thoughts mixed in there for good measure like “I suck at life,” “I don’t know how to adult,” and “I can’t do this.” If difficult emotions and painful thoughts have become your day-to-day, you’re probably in the midst of a quarterlife crisis.

You might be having a quarterlife crisis if:

  • You’re struggling with a lack of structure. You probably spent most of your life until now in a structured setting. From the time you were in kindergarten, your days were defined by the schedule of education. You had a place to be and a task to complete almost every hour of the day. Now you have to create your own structure and prioritize your own learning…except no one ever taught you how to do that. 

  • You doubt your ability to make friends. Friends are a built-in aspect of growing up. You make friends on your sports teams, in your classes, and in your neighborhood. Friends just seem to happen…you don’t have to be all that intentional about seeking out, cultivating, and maintaining friendships. As an adult living alone for the first time you might wonder how, where, and when to make friends. Trying to figure out the friendship process can lead to a massive spike in social anxiety for quarterlifers as well as feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

  • Forget friendships, dating is a nightmare. There is so much going on with dating in quarterlife. You're navigating online dating and all the emotional ups and downs of the apps. Meeting people at bars works...kind of...and it can feel unfulfilling and hollow. Since you're probably in the early stages of understanding your attachment system, you may find yourself attracted to the same bad-news type of person over and over again with no real understanding of how to break the cycle. 

  • You’re having “ah-hah” moments about your upbringing. No matter how stable or chaotic your early years were, for you they were the norm. Once you have some space from your upbringing, you might start to have lightbulb moments about what you experienced and how it affected you. These “ah-has” lead to conflicted emotions about your family, caregivers, or systems (like organized competitive activities or school programs.) New understandings about growing up are often accompanied by confusion or even defensiveness as you try to understand the dichotomies of your upbringing.
  • You’re wondering who YOU are. One of the defining aspects of quarterlife is the pursuit of identity and purpose. Once your definition of self is no longer based on the labels applied to you by primary or secondary education or by your family (labels like “lazy” or “straight A student” or “good athlete”), it makes sense to grapple with questions of who you are and what you want from life. This quest for self-discovery can manifest in various ways. You might drop out of activities you’ve participated in for a long time, relocate geographically, experiment with new life philosophies, or rebel in some way. 

  • You have no idea how to spend your free time. In the past, your time was dictated by school and extracurricular activities; you had semesters, deadlines, school breaks, and class periods to help you stay on track, or at least to mark the passage of time. Without these markers many quarterlifers feel adrift. Sure, there may be projects to complete at work, or hobbies you’re pursuing in an unstructured way, but many quarterlifers still feel ungrounded as a result of the excess of time they now have on their hands.

  • “Adulting” feels hard. There are so many complexities of being a grown up! Learning to navigate health insurance, taxes, budgets, jobs, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and paying rent can be super challenging. To complicate matters, free from others to hold you accountable or tell you what to do, you might develop a strong “I don’t want to” passenger. This part of you might tell you to avoid, drop out of, or half-ass different life tasks. And while there’s nothing wrong with experimenting with letting go of that which does not serve you, if you buy too much into your “I don’t want to” passenger you might find yourself feeling even more depressed and lost than when you started. 

  • The past is catching up with you. For people who had chaotic, unstable, or abusive upbringings, getting through childhood was about survival. Parts of you shut down in order to make it through all of the awful things happening to you. After you’ve escaped a damaging system, there’s often a rebound effect…all that strength and energy you put into surviving no longer has a place to go. You can’t hold back the dam anymore, and you start experiencing trauma-related symptoms as a result—flashbacks, nightmares, relationship difficulties, intense and unmanageable emotions, dissociation, disengagement, and substance use or self harm. 

If you check the box of even one of the indicators of a quarterlife crisis, life feels hard…and most quarterlifers check multiple. If you're struggling with quarterlife, it's super important to prioritize your mental well-being and seek support when needed. You’re more autonomous than you’ve ever been...and you don't have to go at it alone. A gift of quarterlife is the ability to choose your mentors, guides, and community as you grow and move forward. 

Stay tuned for how to cope with a quarterlife crisis and the important tasks of quarterlife in a future blog post. 

And as usual, while adulting is hard, therapy can help. 

If you need some help figuring out quarterlife and you think you might be interested in working with me, you can schedule a complimentary phone consultation today.