Open Letter to Therapists on 20-Somethings, Millennials, and the Quarter-Life Crisis

Here’s the scenario for many people in their 20s these days: Somewhere between early childhood and their teenage years, they started learning about the “mid-life crisis,” a virus that seemed to loom among adults. It brought with it nothing but uncertainty and disruption, depression and confusion.

Maybe they learned that their parents were getting divorced. Or their dad needed to transition in his career by moving elsewhere. Maybe their mom wanted a life that she couldn’t have while married. The same thing was happening in households all around the neighborhood. Parents were struggling and unhappy. They wanted something they couldn’t quite explain. TV sitcoms depicted adulthood as drab and unfulfilling, and movies repeatedly showed the dad-character throwing-off the trappings of a confining life in search of something more compelling. The women were shallow and emotional. All the adults seemed lost. And the kids thought, “Is this what I have to look forward to when I grow up?”

The result? If you were raised within a culture of disenchanted adulthood, you would consciously or unconsciously create one of two plans for your future: 1) avoid growing up, or 2) be unrelenting in the pursuit of an adulthood that is rich with meaning.

Today’s individuals in their teens, 20s, and 30s were raised in this predicament, and its effects can be seen in the therapy room (when they finally make the call). They share a similar sensibility: the future seems bleak. Some are pretending and pushing through to the best of their ability — they’re the high achievers. Others are struggling with seemingly everything — they’re the artistic types. They’re all terrified of waking up in a decade to an empty existence.

Yes, it’s as if the midlife crisis has arrived earlier, prompting a similar search for meaning at the outset of adulthood rather than in the middle. It’s what many of these young adults know as the Quarter-Life Crisis.

What People in their 20s and 30s Are Looking For Today

Individuals in the first half of adulthood today want vibrant, rich lives, but often struggle to imagine what such a life would look like. In a society largely devoid of deep spiritual or cultural traditions, they know instinctively that something is missing, but they often don’t know where to begin looking for what has been lost.

Meanwhile, the world seems to be falling apart around them. There is suffering all around them, all over the news, and all over the world, and they often feel that they have been afforded more economic and social mobility than most people ever experience. (Even those who have suffered tremendous trauma). They carry guilt and confusion as a result.

These two factors place them in a double bind. The moment they begin dreaming of pursuing a meaningful life, they ask themselves: who am I to want more than I already have? The result is paralysis and self-judgement.

Despite what you may see from the outside, they are also very often dealing with trauma. Often these individuals have endured not only years of stress, but they have also survived injuries and medical interventions that we now know often cause life-long trauma if not attended to; they have survived sexual abuse and physical abuse; they have endured accidents and loss; and those who have been spared cataclysmic events have daily coped with a society deeply out of balance. Indeed, these are individuals who, no matter where they live, have been raised among social strife, economic uncertainty, the early shock of 9–11, and perpetual war all over the world. They all shrug because that suffering seems so normal. It’s everywhere.

What might appear externally as “delayed adolescence” or “apathy” — labels this generation has heard far too many times — is, at root, often grief and debilitating existential pondering. Beneath much of the anxiety, depression, disorientation, and “failure to launch” is a deep fear about the life ahead of them and guilt for the life they want. Like Siddhartha, the young Buddha, for many in the first world, relative economic security has combined with an awareness of suffering, leading to a necessity of self-exploration and search for greater meaning.

The Value of Therapy for Individuals in the First Half of Adulthood

In a society that lacks ancient spiritual traditions, the therapeutic container is the modern church. In a society that is fast-paced, heavily oriented towards the intellect, and absent of deeply rooted cultural traditions, the therapeutic space is a moment of calm and quiet. It is a space to be heard and understood. It is the entry into the forest or the calm ocean waves, where the breeze and the earth and one’s own thoughts can be heard. It is the womb of the great mother, and the distant mountain temple.

Or it should be.

The therapeutic space has the potential to support these seekers to understand their suffering as providing insight toward the life that calls them, not simply as a disease in need of medication, or a lineage of pain. Diagnoses are not the goal. Medication is not the first resort. These are individuals with deep questions and in need of true mentorship and care.

As therapists, we hold the space for the internal awakening to be experienced. More than anything, these individuals need support in listening to their own lives. They cannot figure out what kind of career or life they want simply by looking outside of themselves and querying friends, the Internet, or you for advice. They need to go in. They need support in hearing their unconscious, their instincts, their bodies, their emotions, and their creative selves. There has been very little instruction in that in their lives. Therapy can provide an enduring space for them to come to know themselves as whole people, as spiritual people, and as people with the imagination to make the world a richer place. If they can hear what calls from within, they can take steps towards the meaningful life they dream about and move out of the constricting crisis that plagues them.