How To Cope With A Quarter-Life Crisis

A girl I know posted this on her journal recently.

“I believe I am entering phase five of my quarter life crisis. It’s a bit like how grief has stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression & acceptance.

Anyway quarter life crisis, phase 1: Denial. Party harder than before, delete your birth year from your Facebook profile.
Phase 3: Bargaining. Give up smoking for a week and buy some expensive face wash.
Phase 4: Shame and regret.
Phase 5: Fear of your imminent death.
Phase 6: Acceptance that since you’re not ever going to do all the things you want to do or know all the things you want to know you may as well sit around smoking weed all day if you feel like it as anxiety only hastens your IMMINENT DEATH.
Phase 7: Death.”

It seems like at the moment a lot of people I know are going through their quarter-life crisis. A friend of mine from school turned 25 last week — three days before me — & when I was in Wellington, I was the recipient of a flurry of panicked emails. To put it plainly, she is freaking out. She thinks she is getting old. She has started lying to people about her age (23 seems to be the magic number). & she is convinced that she is going to have a stroke which will leave half her face paralysed.

She told me that recently an old woman who used a walking stick came into the shop where she was working. My friend said hello, & asked if she could help her, because the old woman had trouble moving around. The old woman stopped where she was, turned around & stared at my friend. “Promise me something,” she said, in a low, foreboding voice. “Don’t ever get old!”

This was the final straw.

Honestly, anyone who thinks the quarter-life crisis is a bogus phenomenon needs to meet my friends!

Most people who are going through this ugly process are aware that there is something wrong, but are you just feeling generally miserable or is it a quarter-life crisis? What are the signs or symptoms? Commonly, they are…

Feeling like you’re not doing well enough
Frustration & disillusionment with the working world
Feeling insecure about what you’re doing, where you’re going & what your plans are
Anxiety over close relationships
Feeling extremely bored with your social life (otherwise known as, “Oh my god, I will throw myself out the window if I have to go to another party at her house”)
Nostalgia for teenage years, high school or university (this often manifests itself as an obsession with looking at old photographs or reading journals & reminiscing)
Feeling a desperate need to “settle down” — like buy a house, get married or have a baby
…Or conversely, wanting to “escape” the real world — like backpacking around the world or finding a nice cave to live in
Financial stress or confusion
Intense loneliness
Feeling that everyone is doing better than you
Terror at the concept of getting “old”
Wondering “Is that all there is?”
A vague feeling of apathy, mixed with horror, panic & depression

Of course, feeling some of these things occasionally is pretty much par for the course, & not necessarily indicative that you’re going through a quarter-life crisis! However, if all these things (or the majority of them) seem to have hit you at once, this can be quite terrifying — especially if it happens to coincide with your birthday or other milestone.

So, I’ve given this quite a lot of thought over the past week or so. Why is it that some of my friends are in this terrifying choke hold, & some aren’t? I have plenty of friends who have never felt like they were going through a quarter- (or even mid-!) life crisis. Why is that?

Well, I think I know the answer. There are two deciding factors which separate the two groups. Since they both deserve a lot of attention, I’ve split this article into two parts — the second of which is coming tomorrow.

The first catalyst for a quarter-life crisis is a lack of meaningful work.

So, the idea that your work or career (or lack of one) could be contributing to your feelings of anxiety is probably a bit of a drag to some of you — especially those of you who are in denial about how happy your work makes you. By now, we all know (I’m sure) that working just to eke out a living is not the path to eternal bliss. The people who seem happiest & most fulfilled are always those who do something that turns their crank. I know that sounds like a bit of a heavy trip, especially if you don’t feel like you’re part of that camp. Believe me, I’ve been there, & I know from personal experience that there is nothing worse than working in a job you dislike. I think the place where a lot of us stumble is that we think the work we do — or the career we enter — has to be life-changing, ground-shaking, life-shattering. It doesn’t. It doesn’t at all.

When I say “meaningful work”, my definition is that it has to be meaningful to you — & only you. As much as we would all like to change the planet, that isn’t necessary to feel good or fulfilled. My idea of something “meaningful” is pretty simple: do something that has value to you.

I used to sell advertising for a small newspaper in New Zealand. My job was to sit at a desk, go through the Yellow Pages, & cold-call businesses to try & sell them space in an unsuccessful newspaper. It was awful. It had absolutely no value to me, beyond the fact that it helped me pay my rent. I would not classify this as meaningful work. On the other hand, when I worked at Lush, I loved it! I was surrounded by beautiful products which I believed in, & I got to sell them to people who really loved & appreciated them. It helped clear their skin up, or made them feel luxurious & sexy, so I felt that was a business worth being in. I really enjoyed it, & it made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile — contributing something positive. I would call that meaningful work. Like I said, you don’t have to wash the feet of lepers to do something that makes you feel good.

If the thing that made you happiest was painting watercolours for the elderly, or walking dogs, then that’s great! I’ll say it again for emphasis: you don’t have to cure AIDS, be a recycling avenger or destroy the capitalist agenda to have a life that is full of love & wonder & happiness, or to make a difference to other people’s lives.

The great thing is that just by being who we are, & being happy, we serve as an incredible example to everyone we come into contact with. I am not a saint or a perfect person, but I feel good about what I’m doing with my life. When people ask me what I do for a living, or enquire as to what I’ve been up to recently, most of them are pretty excited to hear my response. Plenty of them give me a crazed look, before the barrage of questions begins. “So, you don’t work for anyone else? & you travel around & write from wherever you like? Huh?!”

I hope that they go home & think about how they could bring a little magic into their own lives, & I know that a lot of them do — just like a lot of you do after you discover iCiNG & start getting into the spirit of it! That’s just it — sometimes things seem impossible until we see someone else do it — & then, we often feel brave enough to give it a try. In fact, this happens all the time: you can see clear examples of this in athletics. No one can run a mile in under x minutes until they see someone else succeed, & then, all of a sudden, athletes spanning the globe can do it. Just like that. It really goes to show that the only things holding us back are our self-imposed limits or our beliefs about our own capabilities.

Having said all this, most people who aren’t doing some kind of work which pushes their buttons are in that situation precisely because they don’t know where to begin. They don’t always know what their interests are, or where their talents lie, & the whole idea is kind of scary. (Having said this, if you know what you should be doing, but are just putting it off — muster up some courage, & begin!) I think a lot of what fuels a quarter-life crisis is this feeling that somehow, everyone but you has a grand plan for their life, & they are Getting Things Done & Going Somewhere, & you’re the only person who is kind of lost & confused. Don’t be tempted to think that people with a “career plan” have it all figured out, or that their lives are perfect. The truth is, most people don’t have a master plan at all. A lot of us are just blindly feeling our way, trying to make the best of whatever situations come our way.

Ths is a long-winded way of saying don’t feel bad because you haven’t got everything all figured out. No one does. The people who think they do tend to learn the hard way that they really don’t. Life is supposed to be an adventure, & it’s supposed to be tricky sometimes! That’s what makes life interesting! If every boy you liked fell at your feet immediately, or you were suddenly a wild success without really doing anything to get there, you would be bored to tears. A bit of a challenge is good for us, because it shows us what we’re made of & proves to us the power we really have — which then helps us to go on & do bigger, bolder & better things.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you feel like your quarter-life crisis stems from a lack of meaningful work:

Listen to yourself
Above all else, remember that you are living your life for you & you alone. If your life thus far has been an effort to make your parents/significant other/friends happy, believe me when I say that you are fooling yourself & wasting your time. This doesn’t mean you have to be inconsiderate or the world’s most selfish person, but you have to put yourself first. Don’t let people bully you into a lifestyle that doesn’t interest or suit you. It is a recipe for complete misery. No one wants to wake up at age 60 & realise they’ve completely squandered their life!

Often our parents, lovers, friends, religious leaders or other people in the community act as if they know what is best for us. While it’s true that everyone has a unique & valuable perspective on life, that does not mean that they are right, or that they can possibly know what our life should be like. Only you can determine that for yourself.

Listening to yourself means paying attention to what interests you, acting on what your intuition tells you (& not just shoving it down or ignoring it), & allowing yourself to grow, expand & make mistakes. Scary, yes! But once you have started living in this way, you’ll never go back. It is an entirely new experience.

Take it slowly
Don’t feel compelled to rush into anything. Time is an illusion, after all, so don’t allow an illusion to dictate your life! We all feel like there’s never enough time, but if you can make the effort to slow down, be in the present & appreciate what you’re doing right at this very second, that perception will begin to change.

Life is not a race, regardless of what your friends or the media may tell you. Who are you competing against, what are you really competing for, & does it actually matter? Your best friend might have a baby & a sparkly engagement ring, while your favourite cousin has a high-paying job & an amazing apartment, but so what? Everyone’s life moves at a different speed & no one is doing better or worse than anyone else. You might be envious of your friend’s baby while she secretly wishes she was unencumbered & able to travel the world like you do.

Don’t rush! Regardless of how uncomfortable it may feel, you are always at the perfect place for you, your life, your growth, development & experience.

Stay curious
As well as keeping you young, it will allow you to remain open to the opportunities that present themselves to you. Stay excited, keep asking questions, continue to move through life. It’s much better to be curious & happy than trapped in something you’re not enjoying.

Have faith in yourself
Sometimes you have to take a big, scary leap into the unknown. You may not know the next step, & you might not know exactly what you’re doing, or how it’s all going to work out — but you need to have faith in yourself & trust in the process.

A lot of people never take any risks because they feel the need to organise their life to death & have stringent plans which they execute like clockwork. That’s an okay way to live, but it’s certainly not very exciting, & it can take some of the thrill out of life! Life becomes much more magnificent when you just decide to do things, & trust that it will all work out. It can be terrifying, but it’s also amazing.

When you have vexing problems or a zillion questions, know that you already have the answer — & everything else you will ever need — inside you.

Be true to yourself
Become aware of the fact that what other people are doing with their lives is not necessarily right for you, no matter how fun/glamorous/cool/right it may seem. You cannot live anyone else’s life. You can only ever live your own, so don’t try to fit yourself into the mold someone else has poured.

Of course, you should try new things to see if they work for you or not. But don’t force yourself to do something if it’s not right for you, or just because you feel like you should. It will only make you feel uncomfortable. It’s much better to be authentic & cut your own path than take painful steps in someone else’s shoes.

Follow your passion
This is part of having faith in yourself, but gets its own mention because sometimes this can be hard to do — especially if people around you are critical or devoted to being “realistic” all the time. People with passion are often misunderstood because they sometimes look crazy from the outside! Don’t let other people’s opinions or judgements sway you. If you know what you’re doing & you have a vision, you should follow it.

“Everyone has a talent, what is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.”– Erica Jong

If you really feel like you’re in the clutches of a quarter-life crisis & don’t quite know how to deal with it, these books come highly recommended. Many people have said they helped a lot — they no longer felt alone in their situation, & were able to gain some perspective & take steps which helped break them out of it.

Try Christine Hassler’s 20-Something, 20-Everything: A Quarter-life Woman’s Guide to Balance and Direction & 20 Something Manifesto: Quarter-Lifers Speak Out About Who They Are, What They Want, and How to Get It, The Quarterlifer’s Companion: How to Get on the Right Career Path, Control Your Finances, and Find the Support Network You Need to Thrive by Abby Wilner & Catherine Stocker, Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice from Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived by Alexandra Robbins, Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties by Alexandra Robbins & Abby Wilner, & Upload Experience: Quarterlife Solutions for Teens And Twentysomethings by Jason Steinle.

You might also like to read this article from life coach Tim Brownson, How To Survive A Mid- Or Quarter-Life Crisis.

Part two is coming tomorrow, sweet thing, so sit tight!