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At 25, Paula Coogan seemed to have it all. She worked in one of Ireland’s top HR consultant firms and enjoyed a stable, happy relationship with her boyfriend of six years. And yet Coogan could not help but feel something was wrong. A “horrible anxious feeling” plagued her, what she describes as “a black hole, a crawling emptiness in my chest.” Occasionally, she would suffer from panic attacks, and over three years she gained nearly 30 pounds. “I was quite annoyed with myself because I told myself this was exactly where I wanted to be,” she says.
Abruptly, everything changed. Between November 2009 and January 2010, Coogan was let go at work and her boyfriend dumped her via text message. It would be enough to throw anyone into a tailspin, but for Coogan it was more than crushing bad luck; it was an identity crisis.
“I used to say, ‘I’m an HR employment law consultant’—that was who I was,” she says. “I really had no clue who I was without that relationship or that job.”
When she considered her obvious next move—finding a job in another HR firm—her insides curdled. “The idea of going into that industry again just didn’t appeal to me at all, which was bizarre because this is what I had studied for,” she recalls. “I thought, if I’m not going to do this, then what am I going to do?”
Coogan soon learned that there was a name for what she was going through: a quarter-life crisis. Few formal estimates on how many individuals experience this period exist, but a 2010 survey conducted by Vodafone in the UK found that 73 percent of 26-to-30 year olds say they have encountered a quarter-life crisis. And a September 2013 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Development (published early online), also done in the UK, uncovered crises in nearly half of men and more than half of women in their 30s.
Some therapists believe the quarter-life crisis surfaced relatively recently, with people taking longer to settle into careers, marriage and families of their own (not to mention the dream-reality of Pinterest). The term entered the modern vernacular in 2001 with the publication of "Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties." (More than 100 books with similar titles have come out since then.) In the 90s, developmental psychologist Daniel Levinson described the period between ages 28 and 33 as “a time of moderate to severe developmental difficulty for most women and men.” Kirk Akahoshi, a life coach and psychotherapist in San Francisco, cites Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic “Death of a Salesman,” in which a son tries in vain to live up to his father’s dreams, as early evidence of the condition.
Whether they’ve been around for a decade or half a century, quarter-life crises are periods plagued by doubt, stress, loneliness and an existentialist search for meaning that affect both men and women. The condition most often strikes people around age 30, though both teenagers and people in their 40s—and everyone in between—may suffer from them, too. “I think ‘uncertainty’ is the key word across my clients,” says Corinne Scholtz, Ph.D., a family therapist, and founder and director of the Center of Connected Living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “In some way, they’re not quite sure who they are.”
When Coogan realized she lost sight of herself, she began reading her old diaries. In one entry, written when she was 14, she exuberantly declared that she wanted to become a life coach. Since she was young, Coogan had excelled at helping friends and female cousins who would often come over to her house to share and work through their problems over cookies and tea. Her favorite books and movies, likewise, testified to her passion for helping others. But she had long ago dismissed the idea of becoming a life coach because it struck her as something beyond her capabilities. With nothing left to lose, she finally gave it a shot.
She never intended to give up HR for good and certainly didn’t expect that within a couple years she’d be running her own business helping other young women struggling to find themselves. Indeed, if not for her quarter-life crisis, she never would have gone on to complete an advanced diploma in life coaching, get licensed to practice, and start her Dublin-based life coaching company, Quarter-Life Coach.
The Road to Crisis
People in their 20s are oftentimes are at a loss about what to do with their lives. They are paralyzed by indecision and a fear of missing out in choosing one path over another. A study conducted by MIT researchers in 2004 testified to this mentality. Hundreds of student participants played a computer game in which several rooms contained variable money prizes. Figuring out which room paid off the most would give them the highest reward, but if they neglected to enter the other rooms, those doors would begin to disappear and eventually close forever. Rather than stick to the best paying room, most chose to keep the disappearing doors open by rushing from door to door—a decision that cost them a 14 percent average loss in revenue.
“Very young people come in and already feel like they’re failures, which gives me a clue that something else is going on there,” Scholtz says. “We start looking at their expectations and assumptions about life.”
For women in particular, the relatively recent notion that they can and should have it all increases the likelihood of setting impossibly high standards for themselves. Stumbling blocks abound for disrupting this fairy tale promise. Upon graduating from college, they may find that—despite working hard and excelling in school—there are no jobs to be had. Or some may throw themselves into school and work, but not manage to find the ideal relationship. When things don’t immediately fall into place, the doubts begin to fester. “We’re told we can have a fabulous career and the perfect family life,” says Coogan. “But the idealistic version of life, for the majority of women, is so far-fetched.”
Scholtz often sees clients whose crises were triggered by romantic relationships, especially ones that were becoming more serious and making them question whether or not to make a commitment. Jobs and education decisions—being fired, deciding whether to return to school, graduation, student loans—also tend to set them off. “I see it as a collision of different life events that happen at one time and lead you into this state of trying to figure out a path for yourself,” she says.
When crisis hits people after 30 (three-eighths-life crisis?), it is often triggered by different circumstances. They may have taken a safe or prescribed career route, only to find that they are disappointed with the results of what they worked so hard to achieve and regret neglecting their own passions. “Maybe they were told to be an attorney and have been in that career for a while, but now they’re in the office thinking, ‘I never actually wanted to be an attorney, this is not what I wanted to do,’ ” says Akahoshi.
Getting Over the Hump
The word “crisis” is associated with catastrophe, but Coogan points out that by definition it means “a turning point,” from the Greek krisis, meaning decision. The good news is that a person who emerges from a quarter-life crisis is oftentimes better off for it.
“There is a way to frame this as being a really productive time for self-learning,” says Scholtz, who, like Coogan, successfully navigated her own quarter-life crisis. After her 30th birthday, she suffered a breakdown, likely brought on by graduation, a new relationship and overwork. To overcome it, she gave up drinking, began practicing yoga, ensured she got adequate sleep every night and went through some serious soul-searching. Although it was painful at the time, she’s grateful for the experience. “When I came out on the other side, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m actually glad I went through this because now I have all of this confidence and insight about who I am,’ ” she says.
As Coogan puts it, “The quarter-life crisis has a purpose and a job: to wake us up and get us to put on our big girl panties.”
Some people resolve this confusing period relatively quickly, while others may suffer deep anxiety and depression, requiring therapy and possibly medication to help them through the transition. Life coaches often begin by helping a client get to know herself. Coogan asks women questions like “What makes you so happy that you would do it for free?” and explores the skills and strengths they’ve developed that support that passion. Confidence building is another component, since many women no longer trust their own judgment or feel they’re not good enough to succeed.
The key, says Akahoshi, is “finding out how you operate, seeing what you’re afraid of and identifying what brings you to life.” Only after a client taps into who she really is can the planning for moving forward begin. Coogan asks women where they want to be in 10 or 20 years—or sometimes, where they don’t want to be—to help identify that path. To give them the confidence they need to take that leap, she sometimes challenges them to undertake activities outside their comfort zones, like rock climbing, bungee jumping or skydiving, symbolizing the leap of faith they are poised to make in their own lives.
Friends and family can also help clarify and support your new path, whether it’s a career change, reassessing your relationship, or learning to put yourself and your needs at the top of the priority list. Akahoshi suggests getting a group of trusted individuals together for weekly soul-searching sessions, perhaps to set weekly goals, or answer a meaningful question such as “What has been consistently going through your mind?” “Where in life are you feeling stuck?” or “Is there a project, goal or dream that you want to do but haven’t been able to do?” These will help you not feel alone, give you a sounding board and make it safe to explore these issues.
“The power of the dream is not only in the acquisition of the dream,” Akahoshi says, “but in the journey of going after it.”
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