Col18_QuarterLifeCrisisOriginally ‘symptomatically’-noted by good old Siggy Freud, but not formally defined until 1965 in a groundbreaking article by Elliot Jaques, the term “mid-life” crisis has become so ubiquitous within society that the image of a 60 year-old greying man, dressed to the nines, driving a hot red convertible and accompanied by a twenty-something blonde bimbo undoubtedly brings to mind an attempt to “recapture” one’s youth driven by a “fear of impending death”(…that or Charlie Sheen, but he’s a whole ‘nother discussion in himself).

Less familiar and only introduced in the earlier half of the 2000s, the concept of the “quarter-life” crisis is said to affect those just ending their adolescent years up until their mid-thirties. Whereas “death” is hypothesized to act as the impetus behind a “mid-life” crisis, “life” (as in you’re no longer a child, but now an adult with adult responsibilities and obligations) has the same effect on those of us facing the second “quarter” of our journeys.

Despite the gap in age when these two phenomena are said to strike, there are clear similarities between them. As explained in Psychology Today, both crises are brought on by an “assessment” of one’s life in terms of where one currently is VS where one wants to be or believes he/she should be.

Now, it’s perfectly healthy from a psychological perspective to have major life goals and expectations when it comes to your relationships, career aspirations, important personal possessions (ie: house and car) and even your physical appearance. Moreover, it’s perfectly healthy (and in fact ENCOURAGED) to regularly do “self check-ins” in terms of the aforementioned items to ensure you’re happy with your choices and leading the kind of life you truly desire. Where these practises become pathological in nature is when they lead to deviant, unhealthy and uncharacteristic “reality avoiding” and/or “reality deluding” behaviour(s) such as: drug or alcohol abuse, appearance obsession, the acquisition of unusual or unaffordable items, participation in dangerous or illicit activities, excessive socializing or premature emotional intimacy with strangers to the detriment of one’s safety, projection of one’s feelings of failure onto others by setting unreasonable expectations, or engagement in extramarital or abusive affairs.

As many studies on the subject have demonstrated, crises of this nature are typically brought on by some or all of the following types of feelings:

  • a deep sense of remorse for goals not accomplished within set timeframes (which often leads to depression)
  • a fear of humiliation among perceived more “successful” colleagues or peers
  • a desire to achieve feelings of youthfulness or attractiveness
  • an inadequate work-life balance
  • a desire to search for an undefined dream or goal (usually brought on by the feeling that one is “lost”, “alone” or has been on the “wrong” path all along)

There is no question that all of us, at some juncture, will find ourselves paralyzed by important life-altering conundrums. Often these decisions not only result in external life situation changes, but also internal psychological transformations.

Undergoing change is something our species has never dealt with very effectively. However, experiencing a “crisis” does not have to exclusively be a bad thing. In fact, many a spiritual/religious, relationship and career rebirth have been born from such conflicts, leading to happier and healthier overall individuals. It’s simply a matter of developing mature and rational coping methods; here the practise of positive psychology proves invaluable.

Let us return for a moment to my friend we talked about last week, who texted me in a panic because of her recent participation in a series of questionable behaviours… The more we got to talking, the more it became clear to me that she was/is struggling with her identity (call it a case of the “quarter-life” blues) because of a recent artistic transition, coupled with ongoing dissatisfaction at her formal place of employment.

Instead of practising introspection and taking proactive steps to rectify both situations, like those who’ve equally been afflicted by one of the above two “crises”, she allowed her self-esteem to plummet convincing herself that her whole world as she knew it was over and in turn, attempted to distract herself from this reality via cheap thrills (ie: acting out of character). The guilt response she exhibited toward me was naturally a result of the “cognitive dissonance” she experienced when she analyzed her recent actions against her self-concept.

As Humanist psychologist Rogers explains, one’s self-concept is comprised of three components: 1) one’s self-image (ie: how you see yourself), 2) one’s self-esteem (ie: how much value you place on yourself) and 3) one’s ideal self (ie: the best version of yourself: who you strive to be). While we cannot control external events that affect any of these three components, we CAN control our reactions to these events as well as our overall psychological thinking scheme.

In a nutshell, positive psychology is the new “psychoanalysis”, but instead of asking patients to delve deep into their unconscious realms in order to exercise all of the demons that lie below in an effort to reach psychological peace, it prescribes just the opposite. Positive psychology, as its namesake would suggest, asks those who are struggling psychologically to place their focus on all of the good things within their lives and to acknowledge the multidimensional nature of their existences.

While we all have unfortunate experiences we have to deal with, without those events, we wouldn’t be who we are and who we are is made up of several different personae we exhibit each day. I, for example, am a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend, a best friend, a mother to my felines, an employee, a cook, an artist, a writer and so forth! Because my friend limited her focus to her artistic and employment situation, she failed to acknowledge all of the wonderful things she is and all of the wonderful things she has going for her.

With this said, I’d like to propose that the “feelings” associated with the onslaught of these sorts of “crises” typically originate not purely from catastrophic life events, as such events are RARE. Rather, I believe our psychological functioning has become too deeply intertwined with the North American consumerist model resulting in tunnel vision, short sightedness and increasingly limited attention spans: we’ve been “taught” that happiness can be bought (and sold) and that nothing except “diamonds” (apparently) last forever. In sum, we’ve learned to focus on EVERYTHING BUT our psychological selves when it comes to solving problems (maybe it’s our thinking, what a concept)! To add insult to injury, even when we do focus on ourselves, we apply this same contorted model which results in us thinking it’s the absolute end of our existences when a relationship falls apart or a job is lost. Loss of any kind sucks yes, BUT you’re still alive so get to living.

As the old saying goes, “you can’t put all your eggs in one basket”…as you’ll be utterly screwed if and when that basket breaks (okay, so I added that last part in there but you know it’s true!). The point is this: self “check-ins” are a good thing; so too is acknowledging your true feelings. The psychologically mature, though, do NOT just stop there. If you’re unhappy with a situation, analyze what needs to be changed and make the necessary adjustments. If you’re unhappy with yourself? FOLLOW THE SAME STEPS JUST OUTLINED!!!