Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
After we graduate from college, we should have our lives all figured out, right? Not so much. Here’s what can go wrong and what you can do
I never thought it would happen to me.
When I graduated from college I had a plan. I was going to work in the entertainment business and nothing was going to get in my way.
At age 22, I had already interned at Columbia Pictures and at Warner Bros Pictures. At 24, I had worked for several years at a talent agency in San Francisco and was moving to LA. At 26, I had an amazing job working for a top talent manager in Los Angeles and I was on my way to becoming a junior talent manager. At 27… I was broke, unemployed and living with my mother.
What happened to my perfect plan? A quarter-life crisis happened.
Whether you’re a young person feeling like things are not going as you had expected, or if you’re a parent of a young adult whom you fear might be going through a rough time, one thing is certain: the quarter-life crisis is real.
It may seem like having a ‘quarter-life crisis’ is a recent phenomenon — yet feeling lost and unsure of yourself as you enter adulthood is an issue that young adults have been struggling with for decades.
Let’s not forget films like The Graduate, released in 1967 starring Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate who’s back home from school, living with his parents and eventually having an affair with the infamous Mrs. Robinson. Or 1991’s Reality Bites, which is one of the defining films for Generation X also about a group of recent college graduates each trying to figure out how to navigate adulthood after school.
So, if you think you’re going through your own crisis or if your child is going through a crisis, don’t blame yourself. It’s not just you and you’re not alone.
There are very different definitions about what exactly is a ‘Quarter-Life Crisis’, but I like the Wikipedia version:
A quarter-life crisis is a crisis involving anxiety over the direction and quality of one’s life’ which is most commonly experienced in a period ranging from a person’s early twenties up to their mid-thirties (although a quarter-life crisis can begin as early as 18). It is defined by clinical psychologist Alex Fowke as…
“A period of insecurity, doubt and disappointment surrounding your career, relationships and financial situation.”
It’s hard to give a short, clear definition of what a quarter-life crisis truly is because it’s so different for each individual. What I tell my clients is, “If you believe you’re going through a crisis, then you probably are.” Crisesare never linear, easy to understand or make much sense of how, where, when they happen. They are a crisis after all; they’re supposed to be unpredictable and take you off guard.
Crises are here to tell you something about yourself and your life. When something big happens in your life, you have a choice: you can choose to focus on how unhappy you are and how unfair it is that you’re struggling — or you can see this as your personal wake-up call to start looking at your life in a whole new way.
That’s what happened to me. There was nothing wrong with my dream of wanting to work in the entertainment business. I assumed making lots of money and having a cool, exciting job would automatically lead to happiness. It never occurred to me that happiness comes from the work you do, the people you surround yourself with and most importantly, how you feel about yourself. The problem was I didn’t enjoy the actual work, nor did I like many of the people I encountered and I didn’t like the person I had become in that world.
For some young people, the quarter-life crisis hits early because the transition into the working world isn’t what they imagined. School provides a clear goal along with the structure needed to successfully reach that goal. Without that clear structure and guidance, it’s easy to flounder.
For other young people there was a clear post-school plan but then they realized their life isn’t what they thought it was going to be. They fear they’re not being true to who they are but they’re also not quite sure who they’re supposed to be now.
Reality sinks in: there are no overt rules for how to be an adult and it’s all up to you to figure out who you are and what you want to do with the rest of your life.
No matter where you are right now, no matter what your personal circumstances might be, you have the right to have a crisis, hit the wall and say, “I’m done with ______________.” It takes a lot of courage to say to yourself, “I don’t like this job and I deserve something better” or “This relationship makes me feel bad about myself and I deserve to be loved completely.”
As a Millennial therapist, I work with a lot of young people who feel lost and unsure about what they want to do with their lives. It’s time to embrace your quarter-life crisis and start taking action. Stop stuffing your feelings inside, hoping they go away. This is your mind and body’s way of telling you something is wrong.
I’m also a parent and I know how hard it is to sit on the sidelines and watch your child struggle. As much as you want to take over and tell your child exactly what you think they need to do, you have to respect your child and his or her choices. Even though you may be on the sidelines for their journey, being a cheerleader for your child is exactly what he or she needs right now.
Whether you’re experiencing a quarter-life crisis or watching your child go through one, here are three things to keep in mind throughout the process:
1. You’re going to be afraid
Fear is a natural part of this process. When you’re faced with a scary decision like quitting your job and going after your dream, you’re going to feel afraid. Don’t use your fear as your excuse not to pursue what feels like the right next step for you.
Too often we mistake our fear with real danger. You know that feeling that says, “Uh-oh this is difficult and scary, I gotta get outta here.” When I left my job in Los Angeles I was beyond afraid. My entire identity was so wrapped up in this goal of working in the entertainment business and without it I had no idea who I really was or what I even wanted to do with my life.
While the feeling of my fear was real, leaving Los Angeles wasn’t putting me in any real danger. I knew I needed to leave in order to understand what I really wanted.
For the parents: Don’t try to take the fear away
There is nothing harder than seeing your child in pain, no matter their age. It might take everything inside of you not to want to rescue your child when they’re struggling. Remind yourself your goal as a parent is to raise a happy and productive adult. In order for them to develop into that kind of person they need to be able to face their fears and know they can do this on their own.
If you keep rescuing your kid, as much as you believe you’re doing the ‘right’ or ‘best’ thing, they will start to believe they can’t manage the scary things that life throws at them. If they come to you and tell you how they’re afraid, tell them you know it’s a scary time but you have faith they’ll figure it out.
2. Make Decisions
Decision-making is one of the biggest issues my clients struggle with because when you’re young, your choices are limitless. You’re away from your parents, out of school, maybe unmarried with no children; there’s nothing stopping you from traveling the world, moving across the country or dyeing your hair 15 different colors.
When you have too many choices, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and it’s very common for people who feel overwhelmed to simply do nothing. Clients come to me telling me all the different things they want to do with their lives and when I ask why they aren’t doing them, they’ll say, “I’m afraid I’ll make the wrong decision.”
First things first — there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ decisions, just the decisions you make based on how you feel in the moment and based on the information you have in front of you. The biggest mistake you can make right now is to simply do nothing, because if you do nothing, nothing will happen or even worse, a decision will be made for you.
Making choices based on what you already know about yourself and what you like and don’t like is how you’ll be able to start to uncover who you are and who you want to become.
It’s through these choices we make and the experiences we have that we discover our true purpose.
After I left Los Angeles and my career in the entertainment industry, I thought about what I liked about my past jobs and I discovered I really enjoyed talking to our clients. I liked helping them think through challenges and uncovering what they wanted to do with their lives. I liked the psychology of it all. The next step was to take an intro to psychology course to see if I liked the subject. Everything clicked and I applied for graduate school to become a therapist.
Each decision I made gave me more and more information about myself. The more information I gathered about myself made each decision after that easier and easier to make. The best thing you can do for yourself is to just keep making decisions that will push you forward; as you move forward your path will emerge.
For the parents: You can’t make decisions for your child
If only our children would do what we wanted them to do! It’s nice to dream, but you know as well as I do that your child has a mind of their own. Even if you can see the road clearly, if you want to have a strong adult relationship with your child, you have to let them make their own decisions.
Your child is overwhelmed by all of the choices in front of them and while it might be tempting to steer them in one direction, I urge you to take a different approach: listen. Let your child tell you what they’re planning to do; your job is to ask questions. Questions have the wonderful effect of showing your child you’re interested in what they have to say and as well as their feelings and their point of view.
Remember making decisions is how we better understand ourselves as well as gain knowledge about what we want in life. While your heart might be in the right place, when you take those decisions away from your child you are also taking away opportunities for them to learn important life lessons.
3. It’ll take time; trust you’ll get to where you need to be
You’ve been facing your fear and making decisions… everything should be falling right into place… right? Unfortunately, the quarter-life crisis doesn’t work that way. You’re doing what you need to be doing but you also have to remember it takes time. Remember what I said, crises aren’t simple and they’re not linear.
After I finished my graduate school program in counseling psychology, I didn’t know if I still wanted to be a therapist. I had gotten married during graduate school (not something I recommend) and was burned out and overwhelmed. After graduation, I took two years off and worked at various jobs and for a while thought I wanted to become a trial consultant.
Eventually I decided to go back to psychotherapy, working on my hours to become licensed. While it may seem like I ‘wasted’ those years, I’m grateful because not only did I take a much-deserved break, but those years taught me a lot about myself and I took all of that knowledge into the work I now do with my clients.
The process for me to become a licensed therapist took longer than my peers (I also had my son during this time), but as I look around…
We are where we need to be. Don’t rush through these years trying to get to the other side, because there is no ‘other side’.
This process you’re going through is your life and you have to trust that as long as you take risks and make choices, you’ll get there.
For the parents: Trust your child is going to figure it out
Being a young person today is 100x harder than when I was growing up because there is so much outside noise in the world. Outside noise is the voice of everyone else. Your child doesn’t just have you and their friends inside their head, they have the internet and social media too, which means they have the thoughts, feelings and opinions of millions of people who all think they know your child better than anyone else.
Your child is worried they’ll never figure themselves out and they will be in this crisis for the rest of their lives. They’re scrolling social media for hours every single day comparing themselves to their friends and feeling like they’re the only person in the world who is struggling.
Tell your child you trust they’ll figure it all out. Tell them about your own personal journey or find a friend or family member who struggled with their own crises so your child can see people who had a path that wasn’t a straight line. Remind them of the challenges they’ve faced in the past and how they got through them.
While you can’t take their fear or make their decisions, you can show them you have faith in them.
The process of discovering who you are is invaluable, so don’t run away or put your head in the sand — rather, embrace it because you’re on your way to discovering who you truly are. And if you’re watching your child discover who he or she is, remember you might be able to learn a thing or two in the process about yourself. Plus, these tips could improve your relationship with your child in the end.
Yes, the quarter-life crisis happened to me and while it was painful, I wouldn’t change a thing.
You may also enjoy reading How to Find Your Ikigai and Live a Life of Happiness & Purpose by Emily Gibson