What Does a Quarter-Life Crisis Feel Like? 8 Symptoms You Can’t Ignore

You’re twenty-something and are convinced you’ll never get your life together. While browsing online, you come across the idea of the “quarter-life crisis.” What is it? Do you have it? What does a quarter-life crisis feel like?

The quarter-life crisis is a period of existential, practical, and social upset occurring in almost three-quarters of young people today. Oddly, there’s something comforting about the fact that 72% of Millennials are are the same boat, questioning the purpose of life, bemoaning the fact that they’re still eating instant noodles at age 26, and unable to find the right job that gives them an abiding sense of purpose.

But what about you? Are you just going through a rough patch, or have you slid into a full-blown quarter-life crisis? To find out, it can help to know what a quarter-life crisis feels like. Here are 8 physical and emotional symptoms that will help you know for sure. As someone who is currently fighting my way through the muck of quarter-life crisis, these are my own candid and very personal observations.

1. Meaninglessness

Everything suddenly seems lackluster. Despite being a naturally motivated person, nothing attracts my attention for more than a day or two. I ask myself “what’s the point” for almost everything.

What’s the point of cooking nice meals if we’re just going to eat them in 20 minutes?

What’s the point of finishing my degree if I don’t even want to pursue this career anymore?

What’s the point of traveling the world if I’ve already traveled so much and still haven’t figured out my life yet?

Cognitively, I recognize the presence of meaning in life. My entire blog is predicated on the idea that we can live with meaning and purpose.

Read my complete guide on finding meaning in life here.

But in the midst of quarter-life crisis, what I know to be true and useful fades in significance. The things that produced awe feel unimpressive. The things that once motivated me now feel stale and silly. The quarter-life crisis, being a time for reevaluating goals and individual purpose, is a time to surgically reorganize life, cutting, reshaping, and reconnecting life in a new way.

There’s an “other side” on the far end of quarter-life crisis. But good grief, it feels so meaningless right now.

2. Restlessness

What does a quarter-life crisis feel like? Another symptom is a chronic feeling of restlessness that won’t go away, no matter what you do. You might eat great food, enjoy some cool entertainment, hang out with good friends, or even take a trip, but at the end of the day, you still feel like a utility fan is inside your ribcage, turned on full blast.

Restlessness is one of the symptoms I experience the most. It seems like I have a desperate new idea every day:

I’ll write a memoir…

Maybe I should learn how to sail…

If only I could bake artisan bread, though…life would be good.

I should start a homestead. Live off-grid. Escape this mess…

No, rather I need to start a family and settle down.

But maybe I should work for a different nonprofit?

No, enough with searching for elusive “meaning” in life…I’ll just work for Home Depot and restock nuts and bolts…

My poor husband is quite overwhelmed with my sudden explosion of short-lived ideas. I know I’m restless. I also know that most of these ideas, born out of desperate existential crisis, might be cute but not necessarily the “right” idea.

But it’s part of the quarter-life crisis. Daydreaming about doing something crazy, but never actually doing it, is just part and parcel of mucking through our 20’s.

3. Self-Doubt

I’m 29. I have a Master’s degree in something I don’t even like. I have a string of five different jobs on my resume, which undoubtedly makes me look like a drifter, and right now I’m voluntarily unemployed.

Talk about self-doubt.

What does a quarter-life crisis feel like? It feels like vultures pecking the raw meat off your bones while you’re still alive. It’s a thousand voices in your head, using real facts and data to substantiate the claim that you really are a loser and will never amount to anything in life. It feels like the time I was 12 and bucktoothed and my family agreed when I called myself ugly.

The quarter-life crisis is not false doubt, it is the corroboration of doubt with real facts. That’s what makes it so hard to explain away.

4. Fearful Anxiety

Thinking about the future makes me afraid. Sometimes I get a racing heart and chest pain when my brain tells me that I’ve wasted the last decade of life. I start to run scenarios about what might happen in the next one, two, or five years. I no longer have intellectual energy to pursue another degree, but I won’t be continuing in the field that I started. Where does that leave me? Pursuing a career at Walmart?

Despite being a person of faith, I’m finding it difficult to exercise trust in a divine power when my human mistakes might be the reason I’m in this dark place. For all the wise older people who told me to take degrees in such-and-such, there were an equal number of people who advised me not to.

I’m afraid I made all the wrong decisions.

Part of the quarter-life crisis is reining in my anxiety from being unduly overgeneralized. I tell myself that yes, my situation is bad, but it’s probably not as bad as it feels right now. I try to calm myself down and breathe slowly through the anxiety, hoping that I can wait out the quarter-life crisis the way we wait out panic attacks.

5. Creative Stagnation

For all the other creatives out there, probably the most crippling aspect of the quarter-life crisis is its brain drain. One of the only skills that I have that can be monetized is writing, but I find myself mentally drained by the restlessness, anxiety, and self-doubt of quarter-life crisis. When I sit down to write, I encounter writer’s block that can last for days — even more than a week at a time.

This adds to the stress of the quarter-life crisis, because if I want to strike out on my own and start freelancing or come up with a clever startup concept, I need to be at my best to take on new clients. If you ask creatives, “What does a quarter-life crisis feel like?” You’re liable to get an answer that relates to artistic stagnation. One of the worst parts is feeling mentally blocked — all. the. time.

6. Avoidance and Extreme Introversion

I’ve heard fellow Millennials remark that the quarter-life crisis emphasizes unfair comparisons with their peers and previous generations. They end up spending way too much time scrolling through social media feeds and feeling annoyed that they aren’t enjoying the “good life” like Tom and Jane.

However, I experience quite the opposite.

Realizing that my life course is totally off-track makes me introvert severely, avoiding contact with others as far as possible.

I’ve gone through clinical depression before (been there, done that, got the T-shirt) and I do realize that isolation is also a marker of the big MDD. But my desire to withdraw during my quarter-life crisis is somehow different. With depression, I withdrew because I wanted to give up on life. With quarter-life crisis, I find myself withdrawing because I no longer feel like I fit the particular brand of life (career, social network, educational goals) that I ended up following during my 20’s.

I’m not giving up on life, I’m hungering for a different path. I want to live out my inner values and my faith in a way that feels harmonious. I introvert because the growing mismatch between values and context is too great.

7. Guilt

One of my best friends is my college roommate, Stefani. We both bought into the Millennial rhetoric about changing the world. We had big plans. She was studying business, I was studying education, and we figured we would go to India and start a school. We had a board where we’d pin our ideas and plans like two army generals preparing for major battles.

A decade later, I’ve never even been to India. In fact, my list of “useful things I’ve done for the world” is very, very short.

I worked for a faith-based nonprofit in the Middle East for the last six years, hoping to do something that would make a lasting impact on other people. But I ended up supervising children’s coloring sessions, writing statistical reports, recording minutes for action plans that were never taken, and writing scripts for projects that were repeatedly scrapped.

Brutally speaking, I didn’t made a difference.

What does a quarter-life crisis feel like? It feels like guilt — head-hanging, embarrassed kind of guilt. As if the universe is watching to see if you’ll make good on your intentions, and you got caught with your pants down.

I feel guilty for disappointing the younger, naive version of myself that believed I could. But part of the quarter-life crisis is coming face to face with the reality that heroes are the outliers, not the normal people like you and I. It demands that we accept our normalcy and reject the rhetoric we heard when we were young about how all of us can make a difference. Maybe making a difference isn’t as important as making a living.

8. Hope

Unlike depression, the quarter-life crisis is infused with ragtag hope. We may feel self-doubt, guilt, fear, and stagnation, but we’re convinced that it isn’t a permanent situation. Perhaps this is why we spend so much time daydreaming solutions. The quarter-life crisis isn’t so much about losing our sense of purpose as clarifying it.

For that reason, it feels like a period of purging — we destroy and tear down so that we may build again. It is a time of painful hope, like lancing the boil because we truly believe it will make us feel better in the end.

What Does a Quarter-Life Crisis Feel Like: Conclusion

What does a quarter-life crisis feel like? So far it’s been quite an assortment of things. The emotions that have characterized my experience the most are meaninglessness, restlessness, self-doubt, fearful anxiety, creative stagnation, avoidance, guilt, and ragtag hope.

What about you? What characterizes your own quarter-life crisis?

We, the 72% of Millennials that have to go through this mud and muck, will undoubtedly find a way. As soon as we figure it out, let’s take a deep breath and prepare for the coming mid-life crisis. 🙈

All the best on your journey,

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Jaimie Eckert

Scrupulosity Coach

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