The transition from teenager to adult is a big one—and it doesn’t happen all at once. Even though you’re technically considered an “adult” on your 18th birthday, you may not truly feel grown up until you hit your 30s, and maybe not even then.
Even though you’ll have adult responsibilities and even live on your own and have a job as you head into your 20s, the post-teen years can be a time of questioning and anxiety about living up to expectations—yours, society’s, your parents’—and trying to figure out your path in life.
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Typically referred to as a quarter-life crisis, this time of change can be tough to navigate. Luckily we’ve got you covered with a five-step plan for getting through this fraught period so you can come out the other side not just surviving your 20s but truly thriving.
What Exactly Is a Quarter-Life Crisis?
A quarter-life crisis is defined as “a period of uncertainty and questioning that typically occurs when people feel trapped, uninspired and disillusioned during their mid-20s to early 30s.”
During this time, you may have thoughts of not knowing what you really want out of life, feeling like you “should” be doing something else or be farther along in your career or your relationships. You might even still feel like a teenager and not quite like an adult. (A little secret people rarely talk about: Most of us never actually feel like adults.)
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People going through quarter-life crises often feel anxious, confused, self-conscious or like they are missing something. It’s no wonder that this can be a hard time, given that it comes after immense change: graduating from college and the familiarity of a school setting surrounded by friends, moving into your own place, getting your first “real” job and taking on more adult responsibilities, maybe for the first time.
Steps for Getting Through a Quarter-Life Crisis
A quarter-life crisis typically hits when you realize that there’s no clear direction for you to go in, like there was when you were in school full time. Now, your future is what you make of it and that idea can be pretty terrifying.
Here are five steps for finding yourself in this stressful time and blazing your own trail.
1. Realize that what you’re going through is normal.
First and foremost, know that many people your age are going through the exact same thing. It makes sense, doesn’t it? For most of your life you have been on a clear path: Preschool, elementary school, junior high, high school and then college or trade school. Your days were scheduled, determined by your school and your parents. Even though you chose your college major or concentration and had to pick classes, there were clear rules and expectations for you to meet. You might feel untethered now simply because there is no tether—you get to choose where you live, where you work and how you fill your time, plus you’re responsible for making enough money to fund your life. It’s a lot to contend with all at once.
2. Don’t compare your life path to other people’s.
Remember: To compare is to despair. It’s all too easy in our over-connected world to be able to see what everyone you went to high school and college with is doing right now. Everyone’s highlight reels are available for display and commentary on social media.
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You might see people getting married and wonder why your partner hasn’t proposed. You could see someone getting your dream job and wonder why you’re not working at X company or in a particular field. Seeing what other people are doing will only compound your stress so take a break from your feeds until you get your footing.
3. Get in touch with who you are—and what you want.
Try to crowd out the “shoulds” in your head by getting in touch with what your actual priorities are. Ask yourself: What are you good at? What do you love to do? What activities make you happy? How can you help others? Zero in on what really matters to you, like, do you want to bury yourself in work in order to climb the ranks as fast as you can or do you want to have more of a balanced lifestyle? Is work a bigger priority than your romantic relationships or friendships right now? Be honest with yourself.
4. Create a list of goals to inform your life road map.
Once you get in touch with what you want out of life, work to map out a list of goals. Divide your goals into small, achievable benchmarks and bigger life goals that you’ll meet over the course of the next 20 or so years.
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Just having these down on paper can help you feel more secure about your life’s direction. It’s also okay if you change these goals along the way.
5. Take concrete steps to start “adulting” better.
Sometimes, acting like an adult can help you feel more grown up. You don’t have to go crazy and swear off ever having fun again. Simply make small changes in your day to day to feel more mature and capable. For instance, you could make a plan for paying off your school loans by setting aside a small part of your paycheck each month, or get off your parents’ phone plan to take on more responsibility. You could learn basic domestic skills like how to properly clean the bathroom, do your own laundry or use kitchen appliances. You could work on better communicating your needs and boundaries with loved ones. All of these things will make you feel more secure in your life.
Getting Out of Crisis Mode
Feeling uncertain about your path in life or unsure of who you are is part of being human. No one really has it all figured out all of the time. Instead of fighting against your anxiety or discomfort about the unknown, try to stay grounded and breathe through those moments where life feels super tough.
Over time, as you build upon your skills, get more mature and have a few more years of the so-called “real world” under your belt, you’ll feel more secure about your place in life. But know that worries about where your life is headed come and go—as you continue to grow up you’ll just get better at dealing with these moments and have the confidence to know that everything really will be okay.
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