I hate the phrase “mid-life crisis.” Worse yet is “quarter-life crisis.” These reactionary wordings transform a perfectly normal transition period into a cautionary tale.
Allow me to explain what these “crises” really are; they’re growing pains. They’re as normal as menses or menopause. (I have no idea what the equivalent for men would be, but you’ll have to follow me here)
What happens is that, over time, you become aware that your internal sense of who you are doesn’t match your actual life. It’s like wearing clothes that don’t fit right; they bind in strange ways, they ride up and they make even perfectly ordinary activities feel awkward. Sometimes, this is accompanied by a realization of your own mortality; often that’s the catalyst, the impetus that forces you to make changes. Your insides and your outsides don’t match and it’s not okay with you anymore.
And Then There Are The Complications
As often as not, this realization comes at a point where there’s nothing overtly wrong with your life. It’s not unusual for it to happen at a particularly high point in your life – a point where your dreams are practically in your grasp.
And so, because of this, you don’t get a lot of sympathy for your awkward stage. If you’re upset, people remind you to be grateful, and if you’re invigorated people are resentful. You have all this and it’s not enough for you? What a little princess!
That’s harsh. And more than harsh, that is a hugely unfair reaction. It might help you to realize that most people are deeply threatened by your change, as it represents the loss of something very important to them (you.) It might help them to realize that this isn’t something you can help. No one gets too my choice in the time and place of their growth. Oh, sure, you might be able to postpone it for a bit, or even reject it, but dharma’s a bitch, and she’ll make you regret it. Refusing to grow is the emotional and physical equivalent of foot-binding – and about as crippling.
How to Cope Gracefully
Part of the reason these transitions are called crises is because you don’t know what the outcome will be. That’s why it’s so panic-inducing, right?
You knew who you were. And probably a lot of your identity was also tied up in your job, relationships, education, achievements, and potential. The foundation-shaking aspect of this transition is that you first realize that these markers are not your actual identity. Sometimes they are accurate reflections of you, and sometimes they are not. A LOT of the transition stage is spent teasing out which are which. Did you become a financial planner because you love helping people secure their future or because you were pretty good at math and your parents pointed out that it was a lucrative career?
If it isn’t already clear, the visible trappings of your life are not who you are. They’re a reasonable short-hand, but they’re only one set of many possible ways to express your identity.
That’s why, as you’re going through your transition, you’ll need to spend a lot of time in what I call the “space of potential.” This is where you “try on” the trappings that might possibly be an accurate expression of you.
This might include trying different lifestyles, moonlighting or training for a different job, taking classes or trying new hobbies, or hanging out with and learning from different people.
Repeat After Me: “This is Not a Rejection of You”
It’s that last that is likely to cause the most friction for you. It’s very likely that your friends and loved ones will feel snubbed – especially if you weren’t exactly the outgoing type before. And honestly, there’s nothing you can do about that. It’s their stuff. All you can do is repeat, over and over, that this is not personal. You can’t help changing, and you’re as uncertain about things as they are.
To help you let their stuff be their stuff, find someone to talk to who’s not invested in the status quo.
The important thing to remember is that this is an awesome process. Spending time in the “space of potential” is so much fun, because it’s like trying on costumes and imagining your life with [that thing] in it. You learn so much. I’ve driven truck, I’ve worked on the rigs, I’ve been in academia, I’ve worked in sale, I’ve worked in project management. I’ve done drywalling, I’ve done roofing, I’ve done phone surveys, I’ve been a prep-cook. I have insight into a dozen industries, and I’ve been able to prove, categorically, that they’re not for me.
That’s powerful knowledge.
There’s also stuff I enjoyed. I like running businesses. I like writing (but I already know I don’t want to do it for a living). I love coaching, but I’m not such a fan of having to keep appointments. Maybe I should try workshops instead?
I’ve tried different living arrangements, different relationship arrangement, different aspects of my sexuality. I’ve tried dozens of different experiences, and I’ve read about twenty times more.
Even though who I am might be a little out of focus, depending on the day, I have a ton of data on who I’m not, or at least, who I’m not anymore.
If you’re struggling with defining who you are, maybe you should think about what you categorically know you’re not, and seek to make that category as large as possible.
At the other end of this journey, you are going to love your life. Your job, relationships, lifestyle, hobbies and achievements will once again be an accurate expression of who you are. You’ll be excited, inspired, empowered. That’s worth some awkwardness, right?
If you’d like to share a little bit about who you aren’t in the comments, I would love to hear it!