The Quarter-Life Crisis

Your 20s suck. The reason they suck is because it is a very vague time point in your life where you’re not really a child anymore, but you’re also still not really an adult either. We use the term “young adult” to define individuals typically between 18-25 years-old, but then anyone older than 25 is just an adult until they reach the age of “older adult,” which is usually 65+. But are 26 year olds really adults? By legal definitions, yes of course they are. When you are 18 years-old you typically graduate high school, make a big life decision (i.e., go to college, go to work, go into the military, etc.), and then are expected to act like an adult. One of my favorite phrases that truly highlights my concern with this issue is from a Tumblr account I wish I remembered so I could cite, but it goes a little something like this: you expect college freshman to make a decision about their whole career yet 3 months ago they had to raise their hand for permission to pee. It doesn’t make sense.

In your 20s and 30s, you are constantly bombarded with messages about who you are, what your life should look like, how successful you should be, what house you have, what relationship you are in, what school you should go to, and on and on and on. These pressures can come from any source whether it be family pressure, the media, friends, and internal ideas about what your life should look like. The quarter-life crisis is a term I use often with my patients who are frequently described as “millennials” to highlight how these pressures can severely impact their functioning and drastically alter the way they think, feel, and act. Common signs of a quarter-life crisis are feeling lost, lonely, confused, scared, and anxious about your life. These are above and beyond typical anxieties about life, but rather exemplify a pattern of chronic self-doubt, anxiety, avoidance, and low self-esteem. But does this description really seem limited to millennials? Not really. This pattern of experience has been found in all generations just at different severity levels and if you’ve ever seen any John Hughes movie than you’ve probably seen signs of this phenomenon. The quarter-life crisis is not limited to any particular generation, yet individuals who are actively going through it have received some pretty negative messages about their self-worth based on the label.

According to Erik Erikson, a well-known psychologist in the field of development, life is defined in accordance with particular stages. He defined life as comprising 8 stages from infancy to adulthood each with particular psychosocial crises that result in either a positive or negative outcome for personality development. Let’s go over his stages quickly:

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not a developmental psychologist and that I have not done nearly as much research as Erikson on these stages, but I can’t help but think that Stages 5 & 6 might be more interconnected than they appear. This is what brings us to the topic of a quarter-life crisis. During this stage in your life, you’re defining not only who you are as a person now, but who you want to be as a person in the future. To say that you’ll know at 18 exactly who you want to be at 40 isn’t realistic largely in part because your brain has not developed the executive functioning skills to make those kind of decisions, hence, the quarter-life crisis.

When you’re in your early/mid-20s to early/mid-30s your brain has finally finished cooking from a biological standpoint. You are better equipped to think clearly, logically, and long-term, but what also comes is the fundamental human anxieties of life. Who are you? Who do you want to be? Why aren’t you there yet? The quarter-life crisis highlights a near universal experience of individuals in this developmental stage of life that may require more exploration than Erickson provided. In a way, the anxieties caused during this stage of your life are similar to those of Stage 8; questioning your life and defining accomplishment. Ask yourself some of these questions:

·         Who defines who you are as a person?

·         What do you want in your life? What don’t you want?

·         Do you feel worried about the future?

·         Do you think there’s something wrong with you because you’re not
           married, have babies, a mortgage, a career, that perfect car, or whatever
           other symbol of “adulthood” you think you should have?

·         Do you feel like a failure?

·         Are you scared of who you will become?

·         Do you feel alone?

These questions are important to start asking yourself because these are some of the real questions that will help you define yourself not just now, but in the future. Screw what the media, society, or even your friends tell you about your life. What do you want? Who do you want to be when you grow up? The comparison of your “behind the scenes” to someone’s “highlight reel” can really alter your perceptions of yourself.

I’m not writing this just from a professional lense, but a personal one. I look around at people in my cohort and I see what they have accomplished. I compare myself constantly to individuals who have been in my field longer and ask “why am I not there yet?” I have discussions about anxieties, worth, love, and purpose with my friends, colleagues, and clients on a near constant basis. I went through my own quarter-life crisis and kinda feel like it’s still there a bit, but it is these times that make us human. We question our own existence, we question our worth, we question what makes us happy, and we seek answers even after we have them. You are not weird because you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up. You are not abnormal because you still don’t know if you want children. You are not broken because you feel alone. You’re not behind the curve because you’re still in school. You are human and your humanity is what makes you amazing, anxieties and all!

I shall now leave you with one of my favorite pictures that, again from Tumblr, shows the struggle. If you'd like to discuss this matter further, feel free to email me at or via phone at (702) 587-1573.