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How to Deal With the Quarter-Life Crisis

Call it entering the real world, call it halfway between nothing and something, or call it emerging adulthood. Whatever you call it, it’s the quarter-life crisis. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers five tips for dealing with the change and unpredictability of being a young adult.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #112

Your early twenties are nothing if not perplexing. Society sends you confusing messages—you’re trusted to choose a president and kick back with a cocktail, but apparently you can’t handle renting a car.

But it’s not just those hovering at the threshold of Grownupland who experience soul-searching, anxiety, and feeling like you’re being left behind. This week, whether you’re 22, 42, or 72, we’ll cover 5 tips for anytime you find yourself lost in transition.

But first, let’s look at why early adulthood is so difficult. According to the renowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, whose 1950’s theory of psychosocial development is still used today, emerging adults find themselves at the confluence of two major life stages.  

Each of Erikson’s stages are named as if they were wrestling matchups; one stage, a head-to-head named Identity vs Confusion encompasses the teen years. At this age, a sense of identity develops—who you are, where you come from, what you stand for, where you fit in society. In other words, this stage is essentially figuring out who you want to be when you grow up. And failing to determine this results in insecurity and, as the name of the stage implies, confusion.  

But a lot has changed since the 1950’s when Erikson first developed his theory. These days, most people are still figuring out who they are into their twenties and even their early thirties.  So the Identity vs Confusion stage may not be resolved by the time the next smackdown comes around: Intimacy vs Isolation, which Erikson theorized spanned from approximately age 20-40.

In this matchup, what’s at stake is love. The ability to form close relationships, whether romantic or not, is the core of this challenge. And if deep ties with family, friends, or a partner or series of partners aren’t formed, we risk loneliness and again, as the name implies, isolation.

In both these stages, a lot is at stake. Plus, throw into the mix a quick succession of transitions: graduation from high school or college, finding a job, figuring out where and how to live, and searching for romance, and it’s no wonder emerging adulthood is such a tough time.  

In the face of all this, it may feel like you’re doomed to end up confused and alone.  But the very fact you’re worried about it means it’s on your radar screen, which in turn means you’ll probably be fine. But in the meantime, while you’re figuring out how to be a grownup (or at least realizing it’s inappropriate to get drunk at a baby shower), here are 5 tips to test out:

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Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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