20 September 2008, 12:36
The other day I started talking about the quarter-life crisis phenomenon, & how I believed it could be boiled down to two essential elements. To me, it’s quite clear that there are major differences between the people who experience quarter- or mid-life crises & those who don’t.
Believe me, I did my research! For the last couple of weeks I have been asking my friends whether they’d ever had a mid- or quarter-life crisis, or if anyone they knew had. I also asked them where they thought the root of the crisis came from. Their answers were very illuminating, & really helped me put this article together.
The group of people who seem to go through life without suffering the crushing blow of a quarter- or mid-life crisis seem to have two things going for them. The first thing is meaningful work. They’re in a career where they feel fulfilled creatively, they’re happy with their contribution & they are adequately challenged (or can challenge themselves more whenever they want to).
The second thing they seem to have sorted out are satisfying relationships.
Now, before you start freaking out because you’ve never managed to commit to a lover for more than 2 weeks at a time, let me tell you that I’m not really talking about intimate sexual relationships. Those come & go, & while they can be delightful & a lot of fun, being in a long-term stable monogamous relationship is not compulsory to have a happy life. What I’m really referring to, when I talk about satisfying relationships, are the relationships you have with the people around you, but it also covers the kinds of people you attract into your life, & how they impact & affect you.
Like it or not, everyone that we are involved with — from your manager to your girlfriend to your best friend — influences & affects you in some way. Even if you think you are a one-man island, completely impervious to the whims of anyone else, you are mistaken! We are all impacted upon by the people around us. For example, have you ever worn a certain pair of shoes because a guy you like told you they looked good on you? Or avoided talking about politics because you disagree with the person next to you & you don’t want to make a scene? Or you spent way more than you could afford at a bar because you wanted to be able to “keep up” with the people you were with? Yeah, I thought so! You’re no island!
It’s okay, though. That makes you human — bonus! — & normal. This is nothing ground-breaking, of course, but being aware of this fact can help bring your attention to the sort of people you surround yourself with, & the ways that you alter yourself around them.
Interpersonal relationships can be a lot more complicated than finding meaningful work, though, because it’s not just about you, it’s about the people around you. This means we’re not always in complete control, because for everything we do, the way that someone else responds is entirely up to them.
If you have a fantastic career but your lover or friends or family don’t support it or encourage you, that can put you in a very difficult position. It’s almost impossible to advance yourself or your work if someone who is important to you is jealous, feels left out, doesn’t understand or is otherwise conflicted about who you are & what you do.
Another one of the reasons why having strong personal relationships can help you avoid a quarter-life crisis is because it’s important to feel like we have people who can support us regardless of what we’re going through. Even if our friends haven’t necessarily experienced the things we have, they still have insights & opinions which are valuable & useful. As great as it is to be self-sufficient, having someone else to bounce ideas off is immensely useful, especially when you’re not totally sure what to do in a given situation.
Of course, if you can’t make friends or your friendships are difficult at best, you might find that the people you’ve chosen to involve in your life aren’t always around when you need them. Or they’re around, but not interested in helping you. Or you realise that you don’t feel any better after you’ve spoken to them.
So, how can you make your interpersonal relationships more satisfying?
(A lot of these tips could just be filed under “How To Be A People Person”, but really this is about how to strengthen & maintain your relationships.)
Assess your friends
A lot of us have certain friends because they are convenient or it’s just such an old friendship that we don’t really think about it much. Sometimes it is worth considering whether being friends with this or that person is in your best interests. What about the old school friend who, despite best intentions, is kind of depressing to be around? Or that relative of yours who always pinches your sides & tells you to join them for a run in the morning?
The basis of a friendship shouldn’t be as simple as just not-wanting-to-kill-one-another — it should be mutually beneficial & fun. My usual barometer is to ask myself whether I feel good or bad after I’ve seen someone. If I feel kind of sad or stressed or anything else negative, I ask myself whether that’s how I usually feel after I’ve seen them, or if it was a one-off kind of occasion. I usually move away from friendships with people who continually make me feel exhausted or unhappy or something similar. If, on the other hand, seeing my friends makes me feel happy & elated & excited, I know I’m onto a good thing which is worth continuing with.
Honestly, life is too short to spend time with people who don’t really push your buttons. If you don’t really like your friends that much, why waste all that energy on people who aren’t worth it? You might as well spend your time alone — at least you’ll learn to get comfortable with your own company!
Oh yes, drama. Drama, gossip & turmoil — the opiate of the oppressed (thanks, Erica). It’s what you get hooked on when there’s nothing real going on in your life. (Don’t sweat it, ‘cause we’ve all been there, & I don’t think anyone is entirely immune — but there is a better way to live, I promise.)
So, have you ever noticed that some people just attract drama? They suck it in, it’s drawn to them, it sticks to them like eyelash glue & follows them around like a guy in a bar with a popped collar. They have one problem after another. There is always some Major Agonising Situation which requires some kind of enormous emotional investment. These people can be interesting at first, but soon the whole thing becomes tired & frustrating, aggravating & irritating. Sometimes they squeal things like, “Why does this always happen to me?!”, but behind the scenes they’re delighting in the attention & adrenaline. Believe me when I say that their drama magnetism is not a coincidence. It just isn’t. They have it because they want it, whether they realise it consciously or not.
I used to work with a girl who lurched from one crisis to another. She could never pay her rent, she had problems with her boyfriend, she was arguing with her mother, she slept with some guy who sent her abusive text messages, she was in some kind of conflict with her best friend, & the list went on. I mean, it was constant. She loved it, because it gave her something to talk about, but she was one of the world’s least pleasant people to be around, even though her personality was mostly pretty cool.
A lot of people get confused & think that in order for their life — or for them — to be interesting, they have to be surrounded by conflict & drama. Not true! Drama isn’t interesting, it’s tiresome & old. Isn’t it better to have a life that invigorates & excites you & is drama-free? Yes, of course!
If you have a pattern of attracting dramatic people, think about that & figure out where it comes from. I can’t tell you the exact reason for that, because it’s different for everyone, but it might be that you like to live vicariously through them. If so, resolve to make your own life more interesting. You don’t need to be a spectator to someone else’s life.
My advice if you have dramatic friends? Just don’t go there. You are worth so much more than that. The energy you’re using up thinking about their problems & their crap is energy you could otherwise devote to yourself, & to making yourself happy. Don’t dignify their behaviour with any kind of response, because it just gives them more fuel (& drama to add to the pot!). Don’t get tangled up in their stuff — just dust yourself off & continue on your own journey.
This is easier said than done, because sometimes extracting yourself from a relationship with a drama magnet can be somewhat akin to getting out of an abusive relationship. It can be really difficult, especially if you still care about the person & feel like you should be around to help them get out of whatever new mess they’re in. But you know what? Their stuff is their stuff, & not your problem. You’re not the white knight, & behaving like one doesn’t help them — in fact, it makes them worse. Regardless, sometimes, making positive change is hard. Sometimes, it is difficult & tricky to improve your own situation. But it is always, always worth it. Stop selling yourself short, & make it happen.
Make the effort
Of course, the crucial thing to keep in mind when you make a great friend is that you have to make an effort to keep the friendship going! This can be tricky, especially with the world being the small place it is today. Many of my closest friends live far away from me, & I might not see them before a year is up. But at the same time, making an effort doesn’t have to be an ordeal. Even keeping in touch on Facebook or via cute short emails is better than nothing. It lets the other person know you’re alive & thinking of them, which is so valuable.
Now, you may note that the heading says “make the effort”, not “make the effort when you have nothing better to do”. This includes when you are head-over-heels in love with someone new & your friends slide into lower priority! Oh, I see you blushing in the back! You can’t escape my wily gaze!
I mean, hey, it happens. If your friends are good people, they’ll understand & either bug you to hang out or just wait for you to come back to your senses! But remember them! They will probably still be around when John (or Jane) Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt gets on his (or her) horse & rides off into the sunset… !
I’ve written fairly extensively about How To Be Assertive before, so I won’t rehash what I’ve already said, but being assertive is really important.
What does it mean to be assertive? Here’s a quick summary. It means telling people what you want & what you need. It’s about being strong enough that people won’t take advantage of you or manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do. It means communicating clearly & honestly, not playing games & not bottling everything up until the point where you explode.
Acting assertively can seem counter-intuitive or uncomfortable at first, especially to people who have been taught to always consider everyone else before themselves, but altering your behaviour in this way will be of major benefit to you.
People who don’t behave assertively — that is to say that they behave in an aggressive, passive or passive-aggressive manner — send out confusing signals to the people around them, which can make maintaining relationships difficult. Passive people feel like they’re constantly being taken advantage of, aggressive people wonder why no one wants to get close, & passive-aggressive people are unpredictable & kind of scary! If the same things keep happening to you over & over, it’s time to change your behaviour. Stop acting like a bozo, & take control of your life & your emotions!
Treat people with respect
Okay, so if you’re not associating with people who like to stir up chaos everywhere they go, your friends are probably pretty cool. Well done you! If you have friends who are good to you & fun to be around, be sure to treat them well!
This means return their phonecalls, treat them to dinner once in a while, don’t constantly bail on seeing them & let them know that you appreciate them! Don’t just show up at their house unannounced, be sure to share good times (as opposed to just calling when you have some kind of problem), look after their belongings & don’t tell them their dress looks good on them if it doesn’t! Be good, be genuine, be a friend worth having, & you’ll be respected in return.
“Love one another & you will be happy. It’s as simple & as difficult as that.” — Michael Leunig
As for me, I think I had my quarter-life crisis — or at least some general kind of existential crisis — from about age 19 to 22 or 23. It lasted for quite a long time, & I was really miserable. I also thought I was the only person who had ever gone through something like it, which made me feel even worse. I was constantly switching jobs, trying to find something I liked — though of course, because I kept doing the same thing (jumping between very similar roles), it never made me any happier. The unhappiness just moved location. I loathed working in offices, & it seemed like I was the only person who had trouble with it. I constantly wondered, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just do this & get over it & enjoy myself?’ So my lack of meaningful work was a major factor — it really messed me up, because I felt like I was a creative person squandering my life, but didn’t know what I could possibly do to remove myself from the situation. I was convinced that no one ever made any money as a writer, so I should just forget about it.
I didn’t really have any strong friendships at the time, either. I had friends, sure, but our interactions were mostly limited to seeing one another when we were drinking on the weekend. “Real” conversations were hard to come by. They were also in similar situations to me — aka disliking their jobs — but instead of battling it like I was, they seemed resigned to their fate. This made me feel even more lost & adrift. Thankfully, at some point I learned about EFT & started using it regularly. That was what really turned my life around, & I credit it with pretty much everything I’ve achieved up to this point.
Like Annie Spandex said in the comments on the first part of this article, an existential crisis can happen at any time, & is quite normal. We all have moments of panic about who we are, where we’re going & what we’re doing. The reason why quarter- & mid-life crises exist is because these are commonly the times where we are under the most stress (quarter) or doing the most self-evaluation (mid). When you’ve just come out of school & are entering the workforce for the first time, it’s incredibly easy to be over- or even underwhelmed by “real life”! Especially when you’re still working out who you are & what you want to do with yourself. The mid-life crisis seems to be mostly brought on by looking at your life & what you’ve achieved so far, & feeling like you’ve come up short.
One of the best ways to avoid feeling like this in the first place is to live consciously. That means don’t just coast along, going about your day-to-day with little thought as to how happy you are. Question your routine. Think about your patterns, & decide to alter them if you realise they’re not working. Try new things. Learn to enjoy every moment. Don’t just get complacent & fall into a routine which doesn’t serve you, because that’s a sure route to sadness/misery/a crisis of some kind!
It’s also important to avoid comparing yourself to other people. I know that it’s a lot easier to say that than do it, but really, no good will ever come from trying to measure yourself against your friends, idols or competition. There are always going to be areas where you are better than them (of course, because you’re fabulous!), but there will also be things they are better at than you. That’s just how life is. Life isn’t a competition, even though society would like to have us think it is. (It helps them sell us stuff we don’t need, among other things.) Just be yourself. Enjoy your time on the planet. Do what pleases you. Boiled down to its most basic elements, the whole thing seems juvenile in its simplicity.
This is not to say that if you avoid an existential crisis your life will be perfect. No one’s really is, we all have our own unique challenges. But just be good to yourself. Find something you love & devote yourself to it. Make some friends who make you smile & inspire you to be a better person, & avoid those who stress you out. Don’t work yourself so hard you get an ulcer — even if you love what you do — because your well-being is more important than that. Love lots of people. Take time off, lie down & do nothing at all. Be generous & free with compliments. Feed your spirit with beautiful things. Love yourself.