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Your Quarterlife Crisis Survival Guide (Part I)

I think I'm having a quarterlife!

In my last post we talked about quarterlife and the quarterlife crisis, a relatable life event for most folks in their 20s and 30s. Characteristics of a quarterlife crisis include feeling lost, behind, adrift, lacking self-confidence, as well as distrust in yourself and your ability to navigate the rough waters of early adulthood.

We also explored the both/and of quarterlife. On one hand, early adulthood is an ill-defined life stage with lots of cultural and societal traps. On the other hand, your 20s and 30s offer a massive opportunity for growth and learning, and for getting to know and like your one-of-a-kind self. 

With the paradox of quarterlife in mind, this week I present to you...part one of your Quarterlife Crisis Survival Guide.

The first step in surviving a quarterlife crisis involves assessing and potentially discarding your original map for what your 20s and 30s “should” look like. It helps to name the societally mandated expectations of quarterlife; to acknowledge the ladder of social achievement ending in what turns out to be empty space. 

Your current map’s trails and landmarks are probably based at least in part on this ladder. These waypoints may have carried a lot of weight growing up; however, when you tune in to yourself you find they’re not super relevant to who you are or the life you want to live.

Step 1: Take a look at your current map

To evaluate your current map, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • What did your upbringing, culture, family system, or other influences tell you about your future and about the tasks you “need” to accomplish in the process of growing up? 

  • Are there expectations around a certain type of work, or around education? Assumptions about where you live or the type of person you partner with? 

  • Any rules about child vs. adult behaviors? Were there “act your age” messages at any point in your upbringing? (I think about painful messages like “only babies cry,” a common yet discard-pile-worthy life lesson.) 

  • How about general life paths people in your peer group, geographical area, or socioeconomic class tended to follow? 

  • Were the rules, expectations, and assumptions you grew up with spoken or unspoken? 

  • Were there consequences for stepping out of line? If so, what were they? 

Of course (to painfully stretch out my hiking metaphor), when you’re doing this evaluation you don’t want to throw out the WHOLE bag of gorp…there are probably some delicious nuggets in there you want to keep. While assessing the building blocks of your old map, it’s also important to look at what you DO want to take with you—what are the important signposts and landmarks in line with who you are, what you value, and who you want to be? 

Here are few questions to help you mine the valuable nuggets:

  • Did you have any teachers, mentors, or adult figures you admired growing up? If so, what lessons did they teach you about yourself and the world?

  • What are some of your favorite memories of growing up? Reflecting back on those times, do they give you any information around what you care about? 

  • Can you identify times when you felt the most like yourself? What do these moments of authenticity tell you about who you are? 

Maybe you had a teacher who showed you the value of being your authentic self, or a parent who encouraged you to be honest in difficult situations, or a friend who inspired you to be more creative and imaginative. These are the M&Ms of early adulthood (assuming everyone likes M&Ms in gorp as much as I do), the pieces you want to hold on to and integrate as you move forward. 

Step 2: Your quarterlife map is yours to draw

Now that you have a little more clarity regarding the expectations placed on you and the signposts you want to heed or ignore, it’s time to continue defining your own map of early adulthood. 

As any good backcountry traveler will tell you, being able to read a compass is a valuable skill. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy we talk about values as a compass. Like a compass, values help you identify when you’re headed in the right direction and when you’re veering off course. 

What are your values?

There are lots of ways to explore your values. One is the 50th birthday party exercise:

  • Imagine your 50th birthday party. You’re surrounded by people who love you, your close friends, your support system, and the community you’ve built over the years. Each person gives a toast describing their experiences with you over the past few decades. What do you want them to say about you? How do you want them to describe you? 

    Do you want them to celebrate your creativity, your kindness, your adventurous spirit, your boundaries, or your care for yourself and others? What stories do you want your friends to tell about you, and what do those stories point to that you care about? 

    The way you imagine your friends honoring you will help you identify your values…the guiding stars there to remind you of the important stuff in life. Having a list of your values when the societal expectations of quarterlife show up allows you to check in with what’s meaningful to YOU instead of how other people are telling you to live. 

Values can also help with the myriad choices quarterlife presents. When you know your values you can mentally explore the various decision paths in front of you and identify which ones are in line with your compass points. You can also begin to shift your thinking from the "right" choice to the "values-aligned choice." This creates more psychological flexibility, an important marker of mental well-being.

Remember, redefining your quarterlife map isn’t a one-and-done exercise. It helps to regularly revisit your values and check in with yourself to see if you’re on the path you want to be on. An exercise like the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Life Compass by Dr. Russ Harris can help with this ongoing assessment. (You can search the worksheet online, or reach out to me and I’ll send you a copy.) 

In part two of your Quarterlife Crisis survival guide we’ll talk about rethinking your landmarks. Instead of basing your progress in quarterlife on the discard pile from step one, we’ll instead explore different levels of self-discovery as markers of your progress through your 20s and 30s. 

Need help identifying your current map or understanding your values? I offer a complimentary 15 minute consultation call to all interested clients. 

Therapy to help you draw your own map.