The crisis of growing up

Have you ever been scared of making the wrong decision? If you answer with yes, then you are not alone. Especially young people often struggle to find the right path, having so many options to choose from. Sometimes this can even lead to the so-called quarter life crisis. The fear of making the wrong choice can be quite overwhelming. Others struggle with the path they are already on, when they feel like it is not the right way for them. But there is hope in the struggle as there are ways to deal with the situation. How this can be done is explained by Anna Jansen, a social worker at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands.

What is a Quarter Life Crisis?

The phenomenon often occurs in the late 20’s to early 30’s, when life changes but certain expectations of this development are not met. There are two types of quarter life crisis, one during which people feel locked in, one during which they feel locked out. In the first case, you are dissatisfied with your situation, but see no way out. For example, if you have started your first job and find that you have chosen the wrong career path. In the second case, you think that you cannot achieve your goals. This can happen if, for example, you have problems finding a job after completing a degree. But the failure of a relationship could have a major impact on your wellbeing as well 1, 2.

“Bad days are normal. But when days turn into weeks and months, it can be advisable to seek professional help.”

Anna, social worker at Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands

Those affected often feel very depressed, but the attempt to solve the problems can bring new hope. However, if the search does not lead to a satisfying solution, this will quickly bring one back into the depressive mood. The negative emotions can be overpowering 1, 2.

Everyone knows feelings of doubt but what turns them into a crisis?

While the term quarter life crisis is relatively new, the phenomenon has been around for a long time. But it may not have been given as much meaning in the past as it has today. If you look around in your own circle of friends and family, you will find that many people change partners, residences, or jobs in the course of their lives. Because doubts about decisions are part of growing up, yes, of life. But for some people the fear of making the wrong choices can be so powerful that they influence everyday life. And that is what makes them a crisis. “Bad days are normal. But when days turn into weeks and months, it can be advisable to seek professional help”, says Anna, social worker and advisor to employees at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands.

At the beginning there is often a question: ‘Have I decided on the right partner/ the right career?’, ‘Am I the person I want to be?’, or ‘Is my life good enough as it is?’ Anna says that the many choices we have in life can be very overwhelming. According to her, the phenomenon occurs particularly often in well-educated people, to whom the world is open. But that also creates a certain pressure to make the best of life.

“Social media plays a role too”, Anna says. Because there, we all try to create an image of ourselves, in the way we want others to see us. Of course, this picture should be particularly positive. If you look around on the platforms you only see the apparently positive, happy lives of others. And it makes you think that you must keep up. Doubts, failures and negative things are rarely shared. That creates more pressure to achieve something great.

“It is advisable to detach yourself from what you think you need to achieve and focus on what makes you happy”

Anna, social worker at Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands

Anna puts it this way: “We have so many things to choose from. But one path could possibly be more attractive than the other and we wonder, did I make the right choice, or should I move on? And that might be the core of the dilemma.”

What can you do if you are in a crisis?

To deal with the crisis, Anna advises to listen to yourself. “You may have lots of possibilities, lots of ‘what ifs’. But it is good to find out what fits your personality, what are your strengths and core qualities, what are your values? What makes you happy in life? Then, take this as the starting point for decisions. And that is important for everybody, not just people in their 20th and 30th.”

Anna also advises that you talk to others about your worries. Because they cannot only give you good advice, you will most likely find that you are not the only one with these feelings. Experiencing this can be very liberating.

It is advisable to free yourself of expectations of what life should be like and focus on what makes you happy. But it is necessary to accept that everything has its downsides too. Because there is no such thing as a perfect partner or a perfect job. “But you can still live a satisfying life”, says Anna. During her studies she also had experiences with the quarter life crisis but managed to take something positive out of it in the end.

“Every crisis can be solved satisfactorily, even if it may feel unsatisfactory at times”

Anna, social worker at Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands

Anna is now in her early 50s and has a solid job, but in her 20s she couldn’t make up her mind about a career. She says that she had too many interests and therefore could not really concentrate on one thing. That is why she started and stopped many study programs. It wasn’t until the end of her 20th that the pressure to decide started rising and she asked herself the important questions. As a result, she made up her mind to become a social worker and has never looked back. In retrospect, she could just as easily have chosen something else and been happy with it. “There was no one and only perfect choice.”

“Part of the problem is that the consequences of decisions appear huge at a young age”, says Anna. You believe that the outcome of your life depends on doing the right thing right now. Only with more experience you realize that bad decisions usually only have a small impact. And you know that you can always change your mind and find another way. “Every crisis can be solved satisfactorily, though it may not appear as a good solution right away”, she sums up.

Talking to older generations can also help with coping. Because they have had the experience themselves and know about the long-term effects of decision making. This way you can learn that bad phases are always followed by good ones. But it can also show you what actions may be better to avoid. Often particularly those people struggle with their decisions, who have chosen for the simplest option in the moment of crisis. The same goes for decisions that had the purpose of evading the unpleasant situation as soon as possible. Anna also says that those are not the best options. Because learning to endure and deal with an unsightly situation is part of growing up. This way you can gain confidence, and the availability of many options is no longer as overwhelming as it was. You can learn to belief in yourself and your abilities.

“If you can’t do it yourself, it’s best to seek professional help”

Anna, social worker at Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands

Another tip from Anna is to try things out. If you end up regretting the decisions, you can use this knowledge and analyze why this particular path was wrong for you. And that can serve as the basis for good decisions. According to her it’s never too late for that, even if you can no longer call the condition a quarter life crisis. You can learn something new and change things trough out your whole life.

Anna says that you must be aware of the fact that dealing with a crisis takes time. But if you can’t solve it yourself, it’s best to seek professional help. You can first contact your family doctor and get advice. Perhaps there are also contact persons at school, university or your workplace. And of course, there is also the possibility to see a psychologist/ psychotherapist. According to Anna, there is no one place to go. “The most important thing is that you feel like you are being helped.”

“Everybody can be satisfied with their life. You don’t need to be stuck in an unhappy situation, even if you are older.” But it may be necessary to adjust your own expectations. If you have learned to master difficult phases, the gained knowledge and self-confidence can strengthen you for the rest of your life. In a way, one needs crises in life in order to develop as a person. Since this gives the opportunity for positive change. And it is certain that a crisis will evolve sooner or later but if you can look back later and feel like it served you in one way or the other, it is still a win in life.


Most important references

  1. Robinson, O. C. (2015). Emerging adulthood, early adulthood and quarter-life crisis: updating Erikson for the 21st Century. Emerging adulthood in a European context. New York: Routledge.
  2. Robinson, O. C. (2016). Emerging adulthood and quarter-life crisis: A theoretical and empirical view from the UK. In Presentation at 24th Biennial Meeting of the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development, Vilnius, Lithuania.
  3. Anna Jansen is a social worker at Wageningen University and Research. She has years of experience advising people in a wide variety of crisis situations. Her real name is different but was changed upon her own request.

Published by Katrin Heidemeyer

Katrin Heidemeyer ist Doktorandin im Bereich Biochemie an der Wageningen University and Research. Durch ihre Arbeit möchte sie das Wissen über die Spezifität von Hormon-Signalen in Pflanzen erweitern. Da ihre Interessen über Pflanzenbiologie hinausreichen, schreibt sie in ihrer Freizeit über diverse Themen. Von Ernährung zu Psychologie, der Neugierde sind keine Grenzen gesetzt.

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