The concept of a quarter-life crisis isn’t new. John Mayer was caterwauling about this “stirring of the soul” on a CD (that no one ever bothered to change) at my very first office job. (That’s right, a compact disc—and my cell phone was as big as my head and couldn’t tell me how to roast a chicken or locate the nearest subway stop.)
But the point is, if you’re consumed by questioning the direction of your career, relationships, and overall life purpose—don’t worry. It’s actually more normal than not.
Simply put, a quarter-life crisis is a period of intense soul searching and stress occurring in your mid 20s to early 30s. The typical sufferer is “highly driven and smart, but struggling because they feel they’re not achieving their potential or feeling they’re falling behind,” says Nathan Gehlert, Ph.D., a Washington D.C. psychologist.
Maybe you’re un- (or under-) employed despite your magna cum laude degree, dispirited daily with the thought of clicking send on yet another cover letter. Or, it could be that you landed your dream job after college, but discover that cubicle life is strangling your creativity.
“I see a lot of clients working in jobs where they thought they could make a difference, but they’re not experiencing that and feeling really unhappy,” says Gehlert, who also heads a support group called QuarterLife+10.
Or possibly you want to be a mom someday, but your work routine of over-sugared Starbucks, little sleep, and cross-country red-eyes doesn’t exactly gel with a toddler’s timetable.
Says career counselor Jenna Gausman, “It’s a struggle of values. It’s about the different roles. Am I business person? Am I an entrepreneur? But, gosh, I want to be a wife and mother… And, I don’t want to be that 1980s lady that goes to the office in her suit and high heels, that works 60 hours a week.”
Perhaps one of the biggest culprits is comparison—a common practice of rating your progress against the lives, careers, and relationships of those around you.
Are there any easy solutions to figuring out your perfect life path? I’d be stretching the truth if I said there were. But, there are some baby steps you can employ to ease your mind, try out a different direction, and start a (more calm) walk through your QLC.
1. Seek Out Solidarity
Gehlert asserts that women are at a significant advantage in any kind of crisis, as they tend to seek support more frequently than men do.
“The best and first thing you should do if you’re feeling stuck and unhappy is to start talking to your friends,” he says.
“I struggled similarly in my 20s—it helped me remember that my perception of ‘falling behind’ wasn’t really accurate.” He also recommends an outside-of-work mentor, as your boss may not always have your best interest in mind. “It’s really important to have someone who you can be completely honest with,” he explains.
2. Work a Side Hustle
Nicole Crimaldi, 28, author of the office advice blog Ms. Career Girl, took a job in finance after college, but found it utterly unfulfilling. She decided to channel her frustration, angst, and unhappiness into something else.
“I used to religiously (for a couple years straight) wake up at 5 AM to write or promote the blog—I had a reason to get up in the morning,” she says. “Going to work 8-5 just flew by because I had something else to grow outside of it.”
“[Try] volunteering, starting a blog, or maybe even a little side business where you sell something,” Crimaldi recommends. “I think the side hustle is a realistic way to continue getting paid and to find some career happiness.”
3. Don’t Let Your Degree Define You
Many recent grads feel stuck going down the path carved out by their college major, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
“Don’t let your degree define you. People use [a degree] as a crutch or an identity if they don’t know what they want,” says Crimaldi, who majored in finance, but opened an internet marketing agency last year. “You don’t always need a degree to pursue something else.”
Consider launching a new sort of learning—taking a class or two at the local community college, going on coffee dates with someone who has your dream job, or reading absolutely everything you can get your hands on. Opening your mind to the possibility of a different path is the first (and hardest) part.
“Worst case scenario?” says Gausman, “you have a skill you can go back to. You have a safety net, whether you realize it or not.”
4. Tell Yourself It’s Normal
Finally, remember that you’re going through a transient (and totally necessary) stage of life.
It’s “the crisis of having to transition from a kid who is told what to do and does it and gets rewards—to an adult who has to figure out everything for themselves,” says Trunk. “So that angst is exactly what you’re supposed to be doing in order to grow. The people who are doing the best are suffering personal angst in their 20s, because that is how you find out who you are.”