You never thought you’d say this, but life was better when you were a teenager.
Back then, all you had to worry about was school and friends and dealing with your parents.
But now? You’re older, and more or less on your own. A long and unknown career stretches out in front of you, and thinking about what you want to do with your life makes you feel panicked.
If this sounds like you, then there’s a good chance you’re stuck in the middle of a quarter-life crisis.
Take a deep breath. Quarter-life crises happen to the best of us, and it’s part of the (sometimes painful) process of growing into adulthood.
While it’s normal to feel some despondency at this period in your life, it’s not productive to let it send you into a tailspin. In this article, we’ll break down what a quarter-life crisis is, how to know if you’re in one, and how to navigate your way through it to come out better on the other side.
What is a quarter-life crisis?
A quarter-life crisis happens when a person in their mid-twenties to early thirties feels anxiety and distress about the direction or quality of their life.
People going through a quarter-life crisis will suffer from many of the same symptoms as general anxiety:
- Trouble sleeping
- A feeling of nervousness
- A pit in your stomach
- Feeling worried for no specific reason
- General feelings of loneliness, stress, hopelessness, or depression
The phrase “quarter-life crisis” arose after the popularity of another phrase: midlife crisis. These typically take place when a person reaches their 40s or 50s—another moment when people feel the pressure of growing older and wanting changes in their life.
Bear in mind, a quarter-life crisis will feel different for different people. You may have anxiety about your career path or missed opportunities. You might feel worried about your ability to survive on your own, or whether you’re growing old too quickly.
While the concept of a quarter-life crisis is recognized in popular psychology, there is no clinical diagnosis. So how do you know if you’re truly suffering a quarter-life crisis, or just feeling a normal amount of anxiety?
Signs you might be in a quarter-life crisis
Below I’ve listed some of the most common things people think or feel when they’re going through a quarter-life crisis. Just because one or two of these feels familiar doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in crisis mode. But if more than a few of these thoughts have crossed your mind recently, then you’re likely going through a difficult period, if not a full quarter-life crisis.
“I have no idea what I want.”
Your twenties and thirties are when you’re supposed to figure out what you want in life, right? But right now, you have no clue what you really want out of your future. You’ve considered different careers and tried different activities, but nothing seems to really light a fire in you.
“Everyone else is doing better than me.”
You look at your friends and peers, and they seem to have it all figured out. They’re going on big trips around the world, or succeeding at a career that makes them excited, or starting a family of their own. Compared to you, it feels like they’re lightyears ahead while you’re being left in the dust.
“I’m growing apart from my friends, and have no one to replace them with.”
It’s easier to make friends when you’re younger, going to school or college with your peers. As we grow older, our relationships with our old friends change—we drift apart and lose touch altogether as our lives move on their own paths. At the same time, you have fewer opportunities to make new friends as an adult, leaving you feeling lonely a lot of the time.
“There’s so much I want to do, but I’m running out of time.”
When you were younger, it felt like you had all the time in the world to achieve your dreams. But now that you’re entering adulthood, you suddenly feel like time is a finite resource. You feel hopeless, because it seems like everything you wanted to do should already be done by now, and it’s too late to start over.
“I’m trapped in a career I want nothing to do with.”
You thought you wanted to follow this career path, but you chose it years ago, and the shine is wearing off. You already feel stuck in this job and you aren’t happy with the path you’re heading down. But it feels too late to change careers, because you invested in a degree or have been working at this job for too long.
“I feel like I’m living in Groundhog Day.”
Aren’t your twenties meant to be the best years of your life? Then why does every day feel so monotonous and boring? You’re longing for some of the excitement you expected for this period of your life, but it’s nowhere to be found and it seems like things will never change.
“I thought I would be doing better by now.”
You thought you’d reach your second and third decades and have all your ducks in a row—or at least a bunch of awesome memories and stories to tell. But as you look at your current situation, you don’t seem to be anywhere close to where you thought you’d be by this age. And that’s worrying.
“I still feel like a little kid.”
You know you’re technically an adult, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. You still feel like a kid or a teenager, stumbling your way through life when you should be adulting all by yourself. When will you stop feeling like a child and start feeling like the grownup you’re supposed to be?
“I spend so much time alone, it’s driving me mad.”
Even if you weren’t a social lion in high school or college, odds are you had more social commitments with friends, clubs, and programs you were part of. Now, your life consists mostly of just going to work and coming home. Weekend parties are a thing of the past, and you struggle to see even one or two non-work friends a month.
“I feel anxious all the time, but I have no idea why.”
You can’t shake that nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach. You lay awake at night feeling worried, but you can’t exactly put your thumb on what’s wrong. You just know something’s not right, but you can’t fix it, because you don’t know what that something is.
Did any of these statements ring true to you? If so, it’s possible you’re in the middle of a quarter-life crisis. So what can you do about it?
7 tips for navigating a quarter-life crisis
Living through a quarter-life crisis can be very stressful, but with the right actions, you can reduce your anxiety and get things back on track. How you handle your crisis will depend on your specific circumstances, but here are some methods that might help get out of this funk.
1. Don’t panic. What you’re feeling is normal.
It might seem like you’re the only one going through a crisis, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. You’re in an important transitory time of your life, and changes naturally cause stress and anxiety. In fact, a LinkedIn study in 2017 found that 75% of people ages 25 to 33 said they had experienced a quarter-life crisis at some point.
Anxiety can be overwhelming, but reminding yourself that what you’re going through is not out of the ordinary can help you find peace. You can even develop a few mantras to help you through these moments of high stress. Try saying to yourself, “These choices I’m making now aren’t permanent” or “I am not defined by my degree.” Play around with different phrases and see if these mental reminders can help ease your worries.
Do your best to take care of yourself—you can manage anxiety by practicing mindfulness and meditation, getting some exercise, spending time with loved ones, or getting some extra sleep.
If your anxiety is overwhelming and preventing you from living your life, it may be time to seek counseling. Working with a therapist can help you pinpoint the causes of your anxiety and find ways to manage them appropriately.
2. Make yourself a “personal happiness” list.
People like to ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But this question can be quite useful for people in their twenties and thirties as well.
You may already be grown up in some ways, but you probably have many decades of life still ahead of you. And that means you have ample time to carve your own path and define what you want your life to look like.
There’s a simple exercise that you can start doing now to help you with this. You’ll need a pen and paper, or a fresh word document if you prefer typing.
On the first page, make a list of things that make you happy. Take at least 10 minutes to do this, and write down anything that pops into your head, no matter how big (“I love spending time with my family”) or small (“I love walking my dog at the park”).
On the next page, start categorizing these things into different groups. Maybe you have one group labeled “Personal Life” and another for “Career” or “Hobbies.”
Are things starting to look a bit clearer? You now know what things you need in life to achieve happiness. The next step is to make a plan to attain these things on a realistic timeline.
3. Create a roadmap for your goals.
To help yourself get through this tricky part of life, you can build your own roadmap for success. And you’ve already got a list of end goals—you know the ingredients that will make up a happy adulthood for you.
Using the list from the last step, start jotting down ideas on how you can build those happiness-creators into your daily life. For example, if one of the items on your list was “I love spending time with kids,” you might consider finding a career that involves children (like working as a teacher or au pair). If you wrote down that you really enjoy traveling, you know you need a lifestyle that will give you time off and enough funds to see the world.
As you draw out these maps, resist any voices in your head that say, “It’s too late for that” or “I’ll never pull that off.” It may be that some of your dreams are unattainable, but remember that many people change careers or pick up new hobbies later in life. You’re still young and have plenty of opportunities ahead of you, so writing off anything that seems too difficult will limit your potential.
Now that you have a list of what goals you have for personal fulfillment, start thinking about how long it might take you to achieve each one. For example, a goal to spend more time with friends might be achievable right away, and all you’d need to write down is, “Set a coffee date with Leah.” That’s an easy task, and will be an immediate payoff as you’re working to improve your circumstances.
Your long-term goals need a bit more planning. Break these up into smaller steps that are easier to manage. If you want to change careers, for example, your first step might be researching job opportunities, and after that, maybe you’ll take an online course to increase your skills in that area. These bite-sized steps will feel a lot more achievable, and hopefully, you’ll begin to feel like you have a solid plan for your future.
If you aren’t sure how to achieve some of the goals you’ve laid out, don’t worry. Our next piece of advice will help with that.
4. Speak with people who have been there, done that.
You are not the first person to go through a quarter-life crisis, which means there are people out there who can provide you guidance on setting goals for yourself and finding your true purpose.
You can start with family and friends—is there anyone in your personal circle who may be able to shed some light on what you’re going through? Don’t be embarrassed to share your struggles with people who care about you. Chances are, they want to help and will give you advice; it’s up to you whether or not you take that advice.
If you don’t know anyone personally who has achieved one of your goals, there are still plenty of ways to get information. You can look into career counseling (often a free resource at community centers or your university), or you can use social media and good old Google to look for people who have shared their experiences.
In fact, we have a few guides that can help you find a mentor to guide you through this stage of life. Check out these resources:
5. Reframe your career path.
Remember that LinkedIn study about quarter-life crises? The number-one issue respondents were dealing with was uncertainty about their career.
The good news is, it’s no longer expected that you stay in one job for decades at a time. In fact, a study from Gallup found that 21% of millennials said they had changed jobs in the last 12 months. That’s more than three times the number of non-millennials who said the same.
If you’re stuck in a job right now that isn’t bringing you joy, it’s ok to leave. But even if you can’t, reframing how you see your job could help you deal with the immediate anxiety it’s bringing.
The job you have today may not be the one you want, but it’s likely that there are some skills you’re learning that will move you in the right direction.
Let’s say you really want to work in the film industry, but right now you are stuck toiling away at a telemarketing job. Perhaps your current role isn’t very glamorous, but you’re learning how to sell, how to engage people, and how to deal with workplace relationships—all things that will help you in your next career move.
At this stage of your life, it’s best to think of your job as a stepping stone, not a final destination. By the time you’re done with this role, you should be able to use the skills and experiences you’ve picked up to help you get a job that’s closer to what you want to do as a career. As you get older and continue working, you’ll be able to move closer and closer to the job you really want, until it’s finally yours. And lucky for you, time is on your side as a young adult.
If you aren’t sure what you want your career to be, that’s ok too. Your second and third decades of life are largely about figuring that out, so it’s ok if you don’t know the answer today. Using the strategies we outlined above, you will eventually be able to narrow things down to a career that is truly fulfilling. Until then, do your best to enjoy the work you’re doing now, knowing that you’re still building valuable skills—no matter what the future holds.
6. Pick up some “adulting” skills to grow your independence.
Your twenties and thirties are filled with firsts—first “real” job, first time living alone, first long-term relationships.
Unfortunately, our school system doesn’t always do the best job of preparing us for these kinds of first times. Teachers are usually more focused on algebra and historical dates than making friends as an adult or finding a new sofa for your apartment.
Part of getting through this stage of your life is teaching yourself new skills to fill in the gaps. And thanks to the internet age, there’s no shortage of information to help you pick up new skills on your own. We’ve got an entire article dedicated to Adulting 101, filled with videos, guides, and resources on everything from cooking a meal to renting an apartment to fixing your car:
Even though you’re not in school anymore, there are people out there who are likely willing to help you pick up skills. If these kinds of videos and articles aren’t helping, reach out to people in your circle. Does Dad have some time to teach you a few simple recipes? Do you have a friend who knows about car maintenance? You won’t know who is willing to help unless you ask.
7. Develop your non-work-related passions.
If you are feeling despondent and bored with your work at this moment in your life, you can mitigate some of these feelings by focusing on a non-work-related passion of yours.
What activities and hobbies do you enjoy? What is something you’ve always wanted to try, but haven’t had a chance just yet? There are hundreds of options to choose from, but here are some passions to consider:
- Sign up for art classes, like pottery or painting
- Join a local league for a sport you enjoy
- Take part in a book or movie club
- Work on your own creative writing or art
- Learn a new skill, like coding or graphic design
- Volunteer with an organization you care about
- Join a Dungeons & Dragons group
- Get involved with your local political groups
You get the idea. You can get out of your quarter-life-crisis slump by devoting some of your free time to activities that really matter to you. Your life doesn’t have to revolve around your job—instead, the money you earn can support all the wonderful things you’re passionate about outside of work.
And there’s an added bonus to this step: Joining groups like this allows you to meet new people and make new friends. It’s a win-win.
Center yourself when you feel lost
Navigating young adulthood isn’t easy. Teenagers often romanticize their twenties and thirties, but the reality is, this stage of life can be stressful and confusing.
The key to surviving a quarter-life crisis lies in being kind to yourself and being proactive. Don’t beat yourself up because you aren’t where you thought you’d be, or because everyone on Instagram seems to be doing so much better than you. (Pro tip: People only post the positives on social media, so don’t use others’ feeds to analyze your own life!)
When you feel anxiety creeping up, try to slow down your thoughts. Pull out your list of goals and review it—this can help center you and remind you that you are indeed making progress. Reach out to family, friends, or a counselor when it all starts to feel like too much. Despite bumps in the road, you will survive this and make it out alive on the other side. You got this!