“The Quarter-Life Crisis”: Mid-Life Come Early

Originally published in the Women’s Therapy Project Northwest Fall Newsletter

The Development of People in their 20s and 30s Today

Here’s the scenario for many young people these days: In their early teens, they started hearing about the “mid-life crisis,” a virus of disruption that seemed to loom among adults. Maybe they learned that their parents were getting divorced. Or their dad needed to transition in his career. Their mom wanted a life that she couldn’t have while married. The same thing was happening in households all around the neighborhood. Parents were struggling and unhappy. They wanted something they couldn’t quite explain and the kids couldn’t quite understand. TV sitcoms depicted adulthood as being drab, and movies repeatedly showed the dad-character throwing-off the trappings of a confining life in search of something more compelling. All the adults seemed lost. And the kids thought, “Is this what I have to look forward to when I grow up?”

If you were raised among a culture of disenchanted adulthood and an expectation of a crisis throwing everything into question, your unconscious would concoct one of two plans for your future: 1) avoid growing up, or 2) never relent in pursuing an adulthood rich with meaning. Today’s individuals in their teens, 20s, and 30s were raised in this predicament, and its effects can be seen in the therapy room (when they finally make the call). They share a similar sensibility: the future seems bleak. They’re terrified of waking up in a decade to an empty existence. It is as if the midlife crisis has arrived earlier, prompting a similar search for meaning at the outset of adulthood instead of in the middle. It’s the “quarter-life crisis.”

What People in their 20s and 30s Are Looking For Today

Individuals in the first half of adulthood today want vibrant, rich lives, but often struggle to imagine what such a life would tangibly look like. In a society largely devoid of deep spiritual or cultural traditions, they know instinctively that something is missing, but they often don’t know where to begin looking for what has been lost.

Meanwhile, the world seems to be falling apart around them. There is suffering all around them, all over the news, and all over the world, and they often feel that they have been afforded more economic and social mobility than most people ever experience.

These two factors place them in a paralyzing double bind. At the moment they begin dreaming of pursuing a meaningful life, they ask themselves: who am I to want more than I already have?

They are also, by and large, more traumatized from the daily effects of society, familial strife, economic uncertainty, illness, and life events than they’re comfortable accepting, because all that suffering seems so normal. It’s everywhere.

What might appear externally as “delayed adolescence” or “apathy”—labels this generation has heard far too many times—is, at root, often grief and debilitating existential pondering. Beneath much of the anxiety, depression, disorientation, and “failure to launch” is fear about the life ahead of them and guilt for the life they want. Like Siddhartha, the young Buddha, relative economic security has combined with an awareness of suffering, leading to a necessity of self-exploration and search for greater meaning. Except some of these seekers can’t seem to get up the courage to take the journey.

The Value of Therapy for Individuals in the First Half of Adulthood

In a society that lacks ancient spiritual traditions, the therapeutic container is the modern church. It is the womb of the great mother, and the distant mountain temple. In a society that is fast-paced, heavily oriented towards the intellect, and absent of deeply rooted cultural traditions, the therapeutic space is a moment of calm and quiet. It is the entry into the forest or the calm ocean waves, where the breeze and the earth and one’s own thoughts can be heard.

The therapeutic space has the potential to support these seekers to understand their suffering as providing insight toward the life that calls them, not simply as a disease in need of medication, or a lineage of pain. As therapists, we hold the space for the internal awakening to be experienced. More than anything, these individuals need support in listening to their own lives. They cannot figure out what kind of career or life they want simply by looking outside of themselves and querying friends, the Internet, or you for advice. They need to go in. They need support in hearing their unconscious, their instincts, their emotions, and their creative selves. There has not been much space for that in their lives. Therapy can provide an enduring space for them to come to know themselves as whole people, as spiritual people, and as people with the imagination to make the world a richer place. If they can hear what calls from within, they can take steps towards the meaningful life they dream about and move out of the constricting crisis that plagues them.

Originally published in the Women’s Therapy Project Northwest Fall Newsletter

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