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My quarter-life crisis happened when I was 24 years old.
I thought I had my whole life planned out. I was going to teach high school English for a few years. Then, I’d apply to graduate schools to get my master’s degree in Fine Arts or some other sort of graduate-level English degree.
Then, I’d graduate. I’d get hired (immediately, obviously) as a college-level creative writing professor. Voila! I had my whole life figured out. Or so I thought.
But after just a few months into teaching, I realized something. I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. It simply wasn’t something that I could see myself doing. I couldn’t picture myself teaching — even something that I really loved — for the rest of my life.
Now what? I spiraled. I wasn’t taking good care of my mental health. I felt like I failed, like I couldn’t stick to the one plan I had made. I didn’t have a solid mental fitness practice to cushion my fall. I was living without purpose or direction. I felt like I lost all agency in my life — and I wasn’t sure where I was going to go next.
“On paper, I had it all. Everything was perfect about my job except for one tiny, kind of important thing: I was miserable… This was the pain of confusion. It was the pain of climbing this career ladder to success and realizing that I was nowhere. I was somewhere I didn’t want to be. I was stuck in a quarter-life crisis.”
Adam Smiley Poswolsky, author
I started to frantically apply for jobs, with no real direction or idea of what I wanted to do. I was applying for everything from sales to account management to customer service to marketing jobs. But while I was job searching, I was also writing. I was freelancing, picking up gigs here and there. I started my own blog and website. And sure enough, I eventually simmered out of my quarter-life crisis.
I found an industry and career path that I love. I revisited my values and purpose and sought out things that aligned with who I am as a person. And I started to build healthy habits, ones that were sustainable for my lifestyle.
Looking back, my quarter-life crisis would’ve gone much better had I had some support. But I was stubborn and determined to weather the uncertainty on my own. But I’ve learned some lessons since I was 24 years old. If I could give myself advice on how to navigate a quarter-life crisis, it’d be this. Don’t do it alone.
In this article, you’ll learn how to identify symptoms of a quarter-life crisis. You’ll also learn what can possibly trigger a quarter-life crisis — and tips to help navigate it.
What is a quarter-life crisis?
First, let’s understand what we mean by a quarter-life crisis. According to Forbes, a quarter-life crisis is defined as a period of “intense soul-searching and stress.”
Research has shown us that quarter-life crises are more common than we may think. According to one survey, 86% of millennials have experienced a quarter-life crisis. Some reported stress about money. Others reported pressure to get married, start families, and settle down. And still, others reported stress around finances, career, and relationships.
Our society is ever-evolving. I remember feeling the stress of career, relationships, and family during my twenties. And to be honest, I still feel some of that stress today in my thirties.
I felt like some of my friends had their lives figured out. Some were getting married and having kids. Others were climbing the corporate ladder. A few had even started their own companies or small businesses. And there I was, not sure what I was going to have for dinner that night.
Sometimes, you might be going through a quarter-life crisis without fully realizing it. Here are some symptoms that you might be experiencing in a quarter-life crisis:
- You feel like you’re wasting time, activities feel meaningless, and you don’t have a sense of purpose
- You have difficulty making decisions
- You’re languishing (like you’re stuck, just going through the motions without being fully present)
- You’ve lost motivation, especially for things you love
- You’re fatigued or more stressed than usual
- You may feel symptoms of anxiety or depression
- You have some fear about making a change in your life, even if you know it’s a good choice
- You feel like your confidence has taken a hit (a lower sense of self-esteem)
It’s important to note one thing: society’s definition of success is changing. Especially amid COVID-19, we’re learning what’s most important to us. And as human beings, we all are unique. We place value on different things, experiences, and goals depending on who we are as people.
Human beings and society are always evolving. And we’re not in a race against one another. My definition of success probably looks very different from yours. And that’s OK. Let’s talk about what can trigger a quarter-life crisis — and how to navigate it.
What triggers a quarter-life crisis?
Like a mid-life crisis or any other type of existential crisis, there are triggers to a quarter-life crisis. While these triggers may not be the sole cause of a quarter-life crisis, they can contribute to the symptoms you may be feeling.
So, what causes a quarter-life crisis? It’s tricky. There isn’t one singular cause or answer.
In fact, sometimes it can be a combination of things that lead to you feeling like you’ve lost agency in your life. Often this type of crisis is connected with our sense of identity. When something happens that challenges or changes our sense of identity, it can be disorienting and scary — hence the “crisis.”
Here are 8 potential triggers for a quarter-life crisis:
- Losing your job (or experiencing job insecurity or issues with job stability)
- A breakup or the end of a meaningful relationship
- Moving to a new place where you might not know anyone
- Living alone for the first time
- Financial insecurity or instability
- Loss of a loved one, family member, or friend (experiencing grief)
- Marriage or a major relationship commitment
- Graduating college without plans for what’s next
What age is a quarter-life crisis?
The term “quarter-life crisis” signals that it happens within the first 25% of a person’s life. But in reality, it’s not like a quarter-life crisis is going to fall squarely on a specific age. So, what age is a quarter-life crisis?
What age is a quarter-life crisis?
A quarter-life crisis usually happens in your 20s or 30s. It varies from person to person due to life circumstances.
There’s no “wrong” age to have a quarter-life crisis. The reality is that we all move through stages of life at our own pace. We may experience a triggering event in our 30s that some of our friends experienced in their 20s. Like having a baby, getting married, or going through a breakup.
Try to avoid playing the comparison game. It’s hard to not think of life as a race to the finish line. For whatever reason, it feels human to achieve “levels” of life. Though gradually (and thankfully), our society is moving away from these rigid expectations and norms. Next, we’ll talk about the signs of a quarter-life crisis and how you can navigate it.
8 signs of a quarter-life crisis
Before you can navigate your quarter-life crisis, you have to determine if you’re in one. Here are eight signs that you might be experiencing a quarter-life crisis.
1. You’re not sure what to do with your life
Have you asked yourself: “What should I do with my life?” If you have, you’re not alone. Oftentimes, this question is one that might come up throughout your lifetime. As you experience new things, grow, learn, and change, so will your direction in life.
It’s common that the first time you may experience this question is during your quarter-life crisis. And that’s OK. Sometimes, it’s what you need to help spur a change in your life.
For example, my husband used to work for a winery and alcohol distribution company. But in his late twenties, he completely questioned his purpose. He wasn’t sure if this is truly what he should be doing with his life. So, he made a change. We’ll talk about that itch for change in the next section.
2. You’re itching for a change
You might be feeling restless about where you’re at in your life. Sometimes, this presents in impulsive behaviors like quitting your job (even without another gig lined up). Other times, this presents as languishing. You might feel a sense of numbness toward the life around you but deep down, you know you need something different.
If you’re itching for that change in your life, you have the agency to make it happen. With BetterUp, you can work with your coach to help overcome your fear of change. Support from a coach can help nudge you toward a place where you’re in the driver’s seat of your career (and life).
3. Your relationships are fluctuating more than usual
It’s normal for relationships to shift and change over time. But if you notice your relationships are fluctuating more than usual, it could be a sign of a quarter-life crisis.
For example, you might’ve recently broken up with your partner. Or you might decide to go off the grid and ignore some of your closest friends and loved ones. None of these decisions are inherently bad. But it’s important to look inward.
Why are your relationships changing? What about these relationships are making you question your investment or commitment?
4. You may be experiencing feelings of social isolation
This sign can sometimes go hand-in-hand with fluctuating relationships. Oftentimes, when people decide to sever ties with a person, it can leave them feeling isolated.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of isolation, think about ways you can build social connections into your mental fitness plan. For example, can you sign up for a new class or try a new yoga studio? Or maybe you can seek out a support group? Your coach can help guide you through your feelings of isolation.
5. You feel like you need to find a purpose
People are searching (and finding) their purpose, now more than ever. The pandemic put a magnifying glass on what’s most important in our lives. And rightfully so, it left many wondering if they were truly living with purpose.
You might feel a void of purpose in your life. You might feel like you don’t have meaning behind your actions, careers, relationships, or even sense of self. If you’re looking for purpose, try self-reflecting. What values are most important to you? What do you care about most in the world?
6. You feel more insecure
Feelings of insecurity happen to everyone. But during a quarter-life crisis, you may feel more and more insecure.
Sometimes, this is related to a specific cause or trigger, like losing your job. For example, you may skip out on social occasions because you don’t want to talk about your career prospects. Or it can be general feelings of insecurity related to relationships or your sense of self.
7. You have difficulty making decisions (even if you know it’s a good one)
Do you feel like you’re waffling around in life? Is it hard to make a decision, even if you know it’s the right one?
When I was going through my own quarter-life crisis, I knew I wanted to quit my job. I knew that my then-career path wasn’t right for me. Yet, I held on for as long as I possibly could before I made that decision. Why is that? If I knew the decision was right for me, what was holding me back? One word: fear.
Even though I knew it was the right choice, it was the fear of the unknown. I had a lot of uncertainty about what my future held. But the reality was that if I stuck it out, I’d only prolong the inevitable and delay my own growth and learning.
8. You’re comparing yourself to others (especially with social media)
With social media these days, the comparison game is at an all-time high. It’s hard to scroll through everyone’s posts without thinking social media is impacting your mental health. Sometimes, you might not even notice the effect it’s having on you.
If you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to others, you might be going through a quarter-life crisis. It’s hard to not compare ourselves to others we know. As humans, it’s natural. But if the comparison game is impacting your mental well-being, it’s time to make a change.
4 ways to navigate a quarter-life crisis
Start with self-reflection
Our CEO Alexi Robichaux talks about how his own experience with burnout and loss of purpose in his late twenties led to him taking stock, changing course, and ultimately co-founding BetterUp. In this Masters of Scale episode, Alexi talks about the moment when he decided to pause and reflect.
Take inventory of where you are in your life. How are you feeling? What emotions are you experiencing? What brings you stress and anxiety? What values do you hold? Are you living out your values in your everyday life? What dreams, goals, and ambitions do you have? Are you making progress toward those dreams?
Make space for reflection. This can be in the form of journaling, meditation, mindfulness, or some other form of Inner Work®. But you have to be vulnerable and honest with yourself, which isn’t always easy.
Are you happy with where you are in life? Are you living your values? What do you have the power to change? What are you motivated to change?
Build a mental fitness plan
At BetterUp, we talk a lot about mental fitness. While mental fitness has components of mental health care, it’s about how you thrive in your everyday life. Being a mentally fit person means you’re better equipped to handle life’s highs and lows.
Our data has found that of those who start out feeling “stuck”, 77% of members will significantly improve their well-being in 3-4 months with personalized support.
This includes working one-on-one with virtual coaching. But it can also include self-care for your mental health every day. Or investing in social connections and relationships. Or pursuing your purpose with clarity. With your coach, you can build a personalized mental fitness plan that works for you.
Practice patience and self-compassion
There are always going to be bumps along the way. That’s part of living life as a human being. It’s so critical to practice patience and self-compassion with yourself.
You are a living, breathing, learning human. And because you’re human, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to stumble. You’re going to learn what works for you and what doesn’t work. You’re going to learn from your failures.
Try a shift in mindset. Instead of putting yourself down for messing up or making a mistake, can you practice gratitude for the lesson learned? Where can you be kinder to yourself?
Redefine what success looks like for you
Success isn’t uniform, no matter what message we may get from society. For some, success looks like having a successful career and a family.
But for others, success may be traveling the world and experiencing different cultures. Success may be investing in relationships that matter and giving back to the communities where you live. Success may look like being a great parent or caregiver.
Adam Smiley Poswolsky talks about redefining success in his book, The Quarter-Life Breakthrough. Beyond just the workplace, he asks readers to examine what makes their hearts sing. What makes an impact? How can you pursue a career (and a life) that matters to you?
We’re all different. So, why would our definitions of success be the same? We’re in the middle of a revolution on how to redefine success. Take a minute to examine yourself.
What’s important to you? What would you be proud of accomplishing? How can you reach your full potential? What does your full potential look like? What milestones do you want to reach?
Overcome your quarter-life crisis
Young adults everywhere are experiencing a quarter-life crisis. While it may seem to happen to only 20-somethings, a quarter-life crisis is certainly possible in your early 30s, too.
No matter where you are in your life, we’re all bound to embark on finding our life purpose. From determining what life path we should seek out to navigating a period of uncertainty, it’s hard to figure out the real world.
One thing that might help: stop thinking of it as a “crisis.”
Just because it feels uncomfortable and even scary doesn’t mean it’s bad. One thing people don’t acknowledge enough is how times of stress and challenge produce the biggest opportunities for personal growth. Growth isn’t comfortable, but becoming who you’re meant to be is worth it.
A big part of navigating young adulthood is discovering yourself. My mom has a saying every time I say goodbye to her after a visit. “It’s so great to continue to get to know you.” For me, it’s a little reminder that we’re evolving, learning, and growing constantly.
It’s natural for me to question if I can do something or accomplish a goal. It’s also OK if I think my entire life is in shambles. Why? Because I know have the support systems and potential within me to overcome whatever comes my way.
Start working with a coach to help carve out your unique life path. With BetterUp, you can unlock your full potential and start to live with purpose, passion, and clarity.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.