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Your Quarterlife Crisis Survival Guide (Part II)

"So I'm having a quarterlife crisis. What's next?" 

A quarterlife crisis is a relatable life event for most folks in their 20s and 30s characterized by feeling lost, behind, adrift, lacking self-confidence, and distrusting yourself. Assessing your current quarterlife map and beginning to redraw its features and boundaries based on your values is something we talked about in part one of surviving a quarterlife crisis. In parts two and three of your Quarterlife Crisis Survival Guide, we’ll explore tracking your movement through early adulthood based on new metrics. You’ll learn about different aspects of self-discovery and how to begin laying the foundations of emotional and mental wellbeing.  

In part one of the Survival Guide we talked about the “checklist” often imposed on quarterlifers by culture and society—a sort of blah beige blanket of education, home ownership, marriage, kids, career, etc. This checklist is part of the reason quarterlifers feel so much anxiety, stress, boredom, and burnout. The map we’ve historically supplied for early adulthood is just kind of garbage, and many folks in their 20s and 30s feel put off by these traditional markers. 

In part one we also walked through steps one and two of surviving and thriving amidst a quarterlife crisis. Step one is to assess your current map. What are the expectations, rules, and guidelines you grew up with? Step two is to begin redrawing your map based on an exploration of your values. By exploring your values, you can establish a new compass to point you in the right direction as you move through your 20s and 30s. This post will focus on the beginner skills of step three: rethinking your landmarks.  

Step 3: Rethink your Landmarks (Beginner Skills)

What if instead of being based on arbitrary and often unrelatable life events, your quarterlife checklist instead focuses on laying the foundation for your mental and emotional wellbeing? Back when I first started working in mental health in 2008, I was learning the basics of mental and emotional awareness alongside the people I was working with. Doing so helped me understand the foundational skills we all need to move towards greater psychological flexibility.

So, let’s focus on some beginner skills you can add to your checklist of quarterlife learning. It’s time to give yourself credit for and acknowledge the importance of: 

  • Learning to feel your feelings
    Emotions are information. Without emotions, we wouldn’t do a very good job of surviving in this world. Emotions allow us to experience safety versus threat, build relationships, know when someone has crossed our boundaries, and understand what’s important to us. We also feel feelings when we engage in something we care about. Dr. Steven Hayes, one of the founders of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, says “we hurt where we care, and we care where we hurt.” Emotions are like one of those giant foam fingers pointing to the important stuff and saying “Hey! Pay attention to this!” 

    Unfortunately, we receive all kinds of mixed messages about our emotions growing up—we shouldn’t feel feelings, we should change them to more “positive” emotions, we are too sensitive or our emotions are too big or too much. (I really hope this is 3-year-old niece has a cute book called When My Feelings Get So Big all about how to feel your feels.) If you can work on building your "feel difficult emotions" muscles in quarterlife, you’ll be amazed at your capacity for holding your emotions and the emotions of others with kindness. You’ll also get better at harvesting information from your emotional orchard and using this bounty to fuel your journey forward. And, you'll ultimately spend less futile energy fighting your emotions, freeing up that energy to be used elsewhere in life.

  • Separate emotions from behavior 
    Dr. Susan David, a Harvard psychologist and emotion researcher, says “emotions are information, not mandates.” Emotions can’t hurt you. They can be tough to experience, but they aren’t going to cause you any lasting damage unless you struggle to separate emotion from behavior. Think about how we talk about anger in our culture. We say things like “she has an anger problem” or “they need anger management classes.” The anger itself isn’t actually problematic, it’s the fusion of anger with behavior creating issues. Yelling, punching walls, and road rage are all behaviors. However, a person can be with the emotion of anger in a non-destructive way, using it as information like we talked about earlier. The sooner you can learn the difference between emotion and behavior, the more fluidly you’ll be able to respond to the world around you. 

  • Don’t believe everything you think 
    Humans are thinking, language-based creatures. Our mind loooves to hear itself talk and is constantly trying to grab our attention with its storytelling. Don’t believe me? Sit in silence for one minute. Notice everything that goes through your head in that minute. You might have thoughts like “this is dumb” or “I’m hungry” or “I need to clean the toilet” or “I’m bored.” That’s your mind, chattering away. 

    We put a lot of weight on thoughts in our culture. Thoughts can be super helpful at times…and at other times, not so much. If I listened to my mind every time it said “I don’t want to write another blog post” you wouldn’t be reading this right now, and I would be missing out on something important to me: sharing information about mental health. Getting overly wrapped up in or bossed around by our thinking can very quickly take us away from a values-aligned path. Learning the typical stories your mind likes to tell you and realizing you don’t have to believe everything you think is a super important quarterlife skill. 

  • Be here now
    The present is a powerful place. It’s where we have choice, autonomy, and the capacity to make decisions. Because of the aforementioned busy mind, humans are often caught in, as Tara Brach calls it, the “virtual reality” of our thoughts. We’re either ruminating over the past or anxiously focused on the future. We’re not in the here and now, and the here and now is really the only place we make choices. Sure, it’s helpful to plan for the future (as in, “I should go grocery shopping today so we have food for the week”), but when we’re stuck there all the time, we’re totally missing out. 

    There are tons of simple present moment awareness-building practices. One you’ve probably heard or tried is 5-4-3-2-1. In this exercise you tune in with each of your senses: five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This exercise seems simple, and oftentimes the mind says things like “this is stupid” or “it doesn’t work.” (Remember that thing I said about not believing everything you think?) When we’re present, we can do so much more—we can notice our needs, connect with others, and move away from harmful reactivity. 

That's a lot of parts and steps and checklists. Can you review?

Sure! In step one of your Quarterlife Crisis Survival Guide you identified potentially harmful messages from your upbringing influencing your perspective on quarterlife. In step two, you started exploring your values so you know where you are and where you want to go. 

With the beginner skills of step three, you’re able to make space for emotions and harvest the information they provide. You’re also able to understand the difference between emotions and behavior so you’re doing more responding than reacting. You can recognize that thoughts are just thoughts…words and pictures in your head. Finally, you know when you’re not present and how to get there. These beginner skills are part of increasing your psychological flexibility, an important marker of mental and emotional wellbeing. 

So now you have a different map based on your own values instead of what you were told is important. You also have different milestones along the trail—instead of things like career, college, marriage, and homeownership your milestones are based on the ongoing journey of self-discovery. You can pat yourself on the back and feel proud any time you identify a feeling, or slow yourself down out of reactivity, or take a moment to connect with the present, or notice a fearful thought about a thing and do the thing anyway. 

You may feel stuck and lost in quarterlife, but I’m guessing you’re already doing so much to move through your life intentionally. You’ve got this. Stay tuned for part three of your Quarterlife Crisis Survival Guide in a couple of weeks. You’ll be graduating to the advanced skills of self-awareness and emotional wellbeing. We’ll also talk more about the why of learning these skills. I promise it’s not just for funsies. 

Need a little more support with your beginner skills? I offer a complimentary 15 minute phone consultation to anyone interested in working with me. Schedule yours today!