The Quarter-Life Crisis (Part I)

By Elizabeth Cobb, LCSW

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post Blog. 

At each stage in our lives, we learn and grow. There are successes and disappointments associated with each stage, and some of these disappointments even verge on a crisis. When we think of a life “crisis” most of us jump to the concept of the mid-life crisis. Cue the images of a 40 something-year-old man with a red corvette and a 20-year-old girlfriend. However, I would argue that the quarter-life crisis is more formative in our development and in determining our life trajectories.

So what is a quarter-life crisis? A quarter-life crisis happens anywhere from one’s early 20’s through early 30’s. After graduating from college, our generation is bombarded with a mind boggling number of options. For many of us, our path had been carefully mapped out for us our entire lives. Then, all of the sudden, we get out into the real world and there are a plethora of decisions to be made: Where should I live? Do I get a roommate? What kind of job should I take? Should I get a pet? How do I make dishes that don’t involve the microwave? How do I find a romantic partner? And on and on… Growing up can be hard, and while having so many options is a luxury, it can also make life difficult.

The concept of the quarter-life crisis has gained more attention in the last few years, but I find that it’s still derided by the older generation. I tried to explain the concept to an older acquaintance and he laughed me out of the room. However, as someone who has personally been through her own quarter-life crisis, I was not amused.

I believe that any life crisis occurs when our achievements and expectations don’t line up. These expectations could be based on our own values, those of our family or those of society. The standards of success also differ based on where you live. In Oklahoma you might be considered a “failure” if you’re not married by 25, while in New York City you might be deemed a failure if you’re not rich or beautiful enough to get a table at Tao on a Saturday night.

New York City is especially difficult to navigate as a 20 or 30 something because the expectations are dizzyingly high. We are surrounded by peers who have their MBAs from the best schools, make six (or seven) figures, have the perfect boyfriend/girlfriend, live in the most beautiful brownstone in the West Village, and on top of that they are also a yoga instructor. When you compare yourself to this ideal individual, you will always come up short.

So let me tell you the story of my own quarter-life crisis. I was right on track at the ripe age of 25 to start questioning the course of my life, my achievements and whether I measured up. I had three goals I “needed” to accomplish by the time I turned 25. The list included getting a master’s degree (check), living alone in a big girl apartment (check), and being engaged to the man of my dreams (not so much). I achieved two out of three of my goals so I must have felt great right? Wrong. Instead of focusing on all of my achievements, I focused on my perceived “failure.” I was a 25-year-old spinster!

On top of being woefully single, I was trying to find a job and was presented with too many options! Thoughts flooded through my head like, what am I doing with my life? Will I end up alone forever? Did I make the wrong choice in my career? Will I end up living on my parents’ couch?

I find many of my clients go through a similar thought process and it’s extremely overwhelming. Here’s the good news: you don’t have to figure out your entire life right now! Even though uncertainty is uncomfortable, things will fall into place. Just maybe not according to your exact timeline.

Stay posted for my next article on how to manage a quarter-life crisis and come out stronger, wiser and more successful on the other side.

Elizabeth Cobb, LCSW is a therapist in private practice in NYC with office locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. If you are looking for support, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn how therapy might be able to help.