You’re on vacation, staring at a menu, and slip into an existential abyss. Fries or sweet potato fries? Which do you like more? And ultimately, what does it even matter? Both are starchy bits of sustenance that only cost $3.50. But actually, shouldn’t you care more about money? What if you’re too splash-happy to ever provide for children? And, at 26, you’re past the prime of your fertility anyway, right? You’ve seen a line chart, and it’s not looking good. So you’ll probably have to adopt, and that’s if you’re even a kids sort of person (who are you?), so if that’s going to be happening soon, shouldn’t you break up with your boyfriend and spend the next four years having sex with everyone you can?
Then you tell your boyfriend that you’ll have the normal fries. And they turn up cold.
It’s the first day back at work after your vacation and you feel strange, and then you realize that strange feeling is “actually just feeling chill.” Nafisa asks how your trip was and you say it was fun, and then James asks and you say it was great—a world outside productivity and feeling like a disenfranchised, underpaid, disposable cog in the machine, with 2,000-plus emails to answer at all times. Then you go to the bathroom and start googling MA degrees.
Intense self-doubt, feeling trapped in a job or a relationship, and feeling disillusioned about what “real life” is? Fairly sure you’re having a mid-20s crisis.
Dr. Oliver Robinson is a man who had his own mid-20s crisis, left various parts of his life behind, and began a career as an academic studying the mid-20s crisis as a phenomenon. “A quarter-life crisis is a double-edged sword,” he told me on the phone. “It’s a time of instability and stress, but also a time of intense development and potential for growth.”
These crises have never been more prevalent among young people, because alongside the world currently being a terrifying place to live, what we traditionally did in our 20s has been pushed back a decade: People are getting married and having kids later into their 30s. “The good side of that is that it gives people a chance to have fun experiences before they settle down into a routine, but the other side is that it makes a quarter-life crisis more likely because there is more instability and stress around that age range,” says Robinson.
He adds that there are two types of mid-20s crises: the locked-in crisis and the locked-out crisis. “In the locked-out crisis, the young person feels that no matter what their efforts, they’re unable to get into adult society,” he explains. “In the locked-in crisis, a young person finds themselves on a path they don’t want to be on and will make big decisions about what they want to do, which can be a long and painful process.”
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way; if you’re lucky, you could be experiencing an exciting mix of the two!
Because you don’t want to be told to start meditating or make a mood board (my mom’s idea) as a way out of confusion-paralysis, here are some other ideas from life coaches, psychologists, and people who have experience crawling their way through a mid-20s crisis of their own, as to what you should do to make things a little more manageable.
Some young men on mopeds. Photo by Chris Bethell
Recognize Your Ridiculous but Very Normal Response to Your Crisis
According to Karin Peeters, life coach and psychologist, a mid-20s crisis is essentially being held in the grips of prolonged decision-making stress. “Some people respond by freezing and being unable to take action; others respond with flight, a.k.a. just leaving the job, leaving the partner, or the city,” she says. “And the third response is fight, or ‘I’m going to work harder, and go to the gym, and do everything I can to achieve something, anything.'”