What to do About That Quarter-Life Crisis: Relationships

In the third of our three-part article series, therapist Paul Zasada shares his best advice for 20-somethings navigating relationships.

What are some common “quarter-life” identity crises you see among 20-somethings?

As you transition into early adulthood, the primary task that emerges is finding your place within yourself and the world. This transition time is often marked by leaving home and searching for a larger identity beyond your current sense of self. Due to the often competing pressures from school, family, society, and your own interests, many people struggle with creating an identity that is meaningful and purposeful. Add to this a lack of satisfying interpersonal relationships and it’s easy to see why so many individuals in their 20’s and beyond experience a prolonged identity crisis with the resulting feelings of isolation, low self-esteem, anxiety, ambivalence, and a general lack of direction.

What advice do you give to a 20-something who is trying to understand how they fit into the world, separate from their family of origin?

Part of the maturation process and finding your place has been described by Carl Jung and other psychologists as “individuation.” This process of understanding how you fit into the world separate from your family of origin begins with a commitment to developing an authentic relationship with yourself. By engaging in self-reflective and emotionally supportive practices such as mindfulness, journaling, psychotherapy, support groups, and self-development workshops, you can ensure you have the right resources to guide your process of coming into your own.

What advice do you give you to someone who is going through a breakup after their first long-term relationship?

Breakups are really hard and can make you feel truly broken. It is important to give yourself time to grieve, as you would with any loss, even if it feels sad or uncomfortable. It is sometimes easier to distract or be in denial, but after those things wear off, you end up right back where you started feeling that pain. Taking the time to really feel your feelings and reflect on what you have learned about yourself and your needs can help you feel stronger and more confident.

How is identity influenced by early attachment and family relationships? How can someone who had difficult family relationships understand the role these relationships had and move forward as an independent adult?

Identity is strongly influenced by early childhood attachment experiences within one’s family of origin. Identity includes the way you feel and what you deeply believe about yourself and your relationships. Children fortunate to have secure attachments with a predictable, reliable, and emotionally attuned caregiver will likely develop into independent, confident adults with close and mutually supportive relationships. Others, who develop insecure attachment patterns resulting from distant, preoccupied, or unpredictable caregivers in early childhood, will more often as an adult struggle with issues of identity and relationships.

By recognizing how difficult family relationships in childhood may have influenced your beliefs about yourself and the relationships you choose to have as an adult, you can begin the work of forming new, more nourishing beliefs that will help you move forward in your adult life. Therapy can offer a safe place to fundamentally rewire and re-shape the limiting relational patterns you may have adopted in childhood.

When should you consider looking for a therapist to help you navigate a quarter-life crisis? How can therapy help?

We all need dependable care and support from others in our lives, and this is especially true during the many transition points we face during our life cycle, such as a quarter-life crisis. If you are feeling stuck in navigating your quarter-life crises, or are navigating it without the appropriate inner support, it may be time to seek a therapist. A well-trained therapist committed to their own inner work can bring the compassionate insight you need to help you safely and successfully navigate your crisis.

What’s the one thing you would tell every 20-something experiencing a quarter-life crisis?

One thing that I tell anyone experiencing a quarter life crisis is that with every crisis, there is an opportunity to discover something profound about yourself. An inner crisis is the soul’s way of saying “this identity is too small for you and it’s time to grow.” As with any growth there is pain, and if you can make it to the other side, you will be rewarded with a much more expansive and satisfying sense of self.