You've finally completed your education . . . or you think so, anyway. You have a job, but not the one you expected you'd get. In high school, you thought you’d be married by now, but you’ve still got dating apps on your phone. You moved into your first apartment ... and then out of your first apartment, after your roommate split. Life is not turning out like you planned, and that's pretty scary. The future is blocked by a gray wall. What if your dreams don't come true? What if you’ve peaked?
I've been there. So many people have. This is what popular psychology calls a “quarter-life crisis”—a period of struggle, usually in someone’s twenties, when expectations about adulthood crash into reality. At one point as a new college graduate, I wondered if there was a class—Successful Humans 101—that everyone else took that I forgot to schedule.
The good news is that this “crisis” won’t last forever. A combination of changed circumstances and mental adjustment will find you stepping out from behind the gray wall. In the meantime, there are ways to cope.
Honor what’s working
In the immortal words of Mary Poppins, “‘enough’ is as good as a feast.” You may be hoping for more, but what in your world do you have enough of? Enough to eat? Enough music? Enough gas for your car?
Is it possible you aren’t giving yourself enough credit?
This is an especially salient point if part of your crisis is a struggle with body image or a chronic illness you hadn’t imagined as part of your adult life. Your body may be driving you crazy, but it also has successfully gotten you through every day, for decades. That actually deserves a lot of respect. And so do you.
Look back over your life so far, and your current situation, without criticizing. You’ll find there is a lot that you’ve accomplished, even if it’s only that you've survived thus far.
End the cycle of “compare and despair”
Sometimes it seems like your Facebook friends woke with the sun and poured themselves a heaping bowl of the Breakfast of Champions. Meanwhile, you slept in and got up in time for the Brunch of Bronze Medalists. We all know brunch is amazing, but this particular frittata is served up extra cold.
It’s common knowledge that defining people by their limitations is not smart or kind. It flattens them into unrecognizable Failure Pancakes. What many of us miss is that the opposite is also true: defining each other by success is just as dismissive. People aren’t their biggest mistakes; but they aren’t their greatest victories, either. It’s just as dehumanizing to think of your peers as superheroes who can’t lose.
One of the greatest myths in the media and our culture is that it’s okay to be objectified, as long as it’s a “positive” form of objectification. Not so. We are all human beings, and our lives are not measuring sticks. Do your best to resist the urge to compare your checklist to your peers, as though that’s the most meaningful way of understanding their journey. Or yours.
Quiet the negative voices
Sometimes it’s not you having the quarter-life crisis. It’s your mom, having one on your behalf. Or your dad, a sibling, or even sometimes a friend. Perhaps they had a narrow escape from a life-altering detour themselves, and they just want to help you find a shortcut.
Whatever the reason, give yourself permission to let their pressure slide off your shoulders like the straps on that horrible bra you keep forgetting to throw away. This is your life and your road to travel—and the potholes are part of it.
That’s easier said than done when the negativity is coming from a permanent voice in your world, like a parent. One way to handle it? Counter-programming. Pack your day with positive interactions and there won’t be time to return your mother’s phone call about the grandchildren she doesn’t have yet. You could even try giving this time in your life an upbeat soundtrack. Yes, I am counseling you to create yet another Spotify playlist!
Whatever strategy you pursue, know that you have what it takes to get through this time in your life with your dignity, your self-respect, and your dreams intact.
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