How A Quarter-Life Crisis Explained My Lack of Motivation In Life

Posted on Jan 31, 2018
Guest Contributor


Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you I’ve never been good at aging. When I turned seventeen, I told them that it was time to hit “pause” and start counting backwards. For my eighteenth birthday, I wanted seventeen candles, for my nineteenth birthday, I wanted sixteen candles, and the gap somehow only widened from there. So it came as a surprise to my friend when I told her, some weeks ago, that I didn’t mind turning twenty-six.

“I mind,” she responded. “I don’t want to turn 26.”

“I realized,” I said, “it's not aging in itself that I have a problem with – we’re still young, we haven’t even hit our prime yet – but I think because we were raised to be overachievers, we have a problem with time passing when we haven’t checked off all the boxes we planned to.”

That was not a conclusion I came to on my own. It took my twenty-fifth birthday – and all the subsequent graceless aging I did – plus a lot of reading to reach it.

I had just graduated from my master’s program – which I would have considered a great achievement, had I not felt like a fraud in a group of otherwise talented writers (an imposter syndrome which was a common feeling for minority students, I hear), and had it not meant that suddenly I was bored, peerless, and alone. My high school friends were all married or with children, and my university friends were off living in different countries and learning new languages. I was teaching groups of students, the majority of whom, after two years, I had become irrelevant to. Most of them didn’t want to learn, and I too had lost my love for what I had thought was my great calling in life. I missed deadlines, I got behind on grading, I broke promises, I didn’t respond to messages or emails, I kept making excuses for myself and taking breaks, and I didn’t feel good about any of it.

When I was still in my MFA program, I could forget all this because school makes everything better. But after I graduated, since I no longer had classes or deadlines to meet, I could wallow uninterrupted in the self-pity that came with feeling insignificant. I suddenly found myself evaluating the choices I had made in my life with the maximum amount of resentment and self-loathing I was capable of conjuring.

So of course, I had to increase the number of ways I distracted myself. I binge-watched period dramas and read anything I could get my hands on.

But it was only in the summer, in another country, when I was trying to alleviate my discomfort with myself by finishing a book a day, when I couldn’t get to the city to see a new exhibit or discover a new cafe to write in – I discovered, namely by reading Caroline Kitchener’s Post-Grad, that apparently I wasn’t the only 25-year-old stuck in this quagmire of feelings. It occurred to me all at once that all these symptoms seemed strikingly similar to the mid-life crises people have in films. Was there such a thing as early onset mid-life crisis, I asked myself... like a quarter-life crisis?

A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions.

It made sense, now, why, for almost a year, every small task—responding to emails, doing laundry, cooking, or really anything besides reading and scrolling through my Instagram feed (where, ironically, actual writers’ and artists’ apparently glamorous lives made me feel even more inadequate)—seemed too daunting and troublesome to attempt. Why my relationship with my mother was strained, and that it was only recently that we’d gotten over the out-of-college “Where are you? Why are you late? Why don’t you just spend time at home? Don’t you think you have enough clothes? When are you going to get a real job? Didn’t you already go out?” conversations. It made sense that I was constantly imagining re-dos and trying to figure out do-overs for every major period of my life: high school, university, grad school, my job, my failed marriage, my divorce. Why I was preoccupied with the idea of romantic love (that involved zero commitment) and finding new and exciting love objects I would do nothing about. It made sense why I felt like death was imminent and why I considering getting five sweaters with “Existential Angst” written on them for everyday of the week – none for the weekend of course, because I’m selectively social and why would I change out of my pajamas on the weekend?!

But apparently, and this is the part of the research where I got the ego-boost necessary for the healing process: quarter-life crises are more likely to hit people who are ambitious and who were set up for success. Also – and here’s the hopeful part – they’re not supposed to be debilitating and permanent. The average quarter-life crisis lasts about 11 months and the “purpose” of it is to create just enough discontent in you to force you to shift gears. The quarter-life crisis is the outside force in Newton’s first law. It is a crater that forces you out of one orbit or unhealthy cycle into another one – hopefully a much healthier one.

So I set out on the healing process. First, I stopped feeling guilty about feeling bad about myself. There’s some sick logic to that. Second, I consulted Google and the library, again. I took notes in my journal and I started working on the earliest drafts of this essay. I began teaching new students whose passion mirrored my own, and I focused on them. It was ambition, a real love for teaching interesting people, and maybe a hint of vanity that made me excited about teaching again. That was when my quarter life crisis started packing its bags. We were reading Grendel and, ahead of schedule, took a two-week tangent to watch Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, to talk about Sartre and translate Beauvoir. Watching my students argue about the meaning of existentialism and whether essence precedes existence sped up the healing process. And I realized, reading Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe, that at the core of my quarter-life crisis really was an overwhelming existentialist angst.

“Anxiety,” Bakewell says, “is the dizziness of freedom.” I had plenty of time, and no doors were closed to me. Nothing, literally nothing, was in my way. I could do anything. I was drowning in possibilities, and the distinct weight of each of the decisions I made every day, and the responsibility I held for each one of those decisions and their consequences felt heavy. It was not only the course of my life that would be determined by those decisions but the very essence of who I was. I said that school makes everything better, and this process is one reason why. The more I read, the less unbearably alone I found myself, and the more I realized these feelings were common.

Of course, the quarter-life crisis didn’t simply pack its bags and leave me a suddenly content, productive, and self-congratulatory person. But now at least, I can will away the image of an enormous “twenty-five” hovering over my head – the one that I imagine invites scorn from people who wonder at what I have done with my liberal arts education, or wonder why I spend so much of my time with high school students or older graduate students instead of people my own age. I no longer tell myself “you have too many friends” or “new relationships are exhausting.” Instead, I force myself to leave my comfort zone to go for coffee or a reading with anyone whose company is intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. I keep up with friends who push me to pursue my dreams. I recognize that not moving is the worst thing I could do to myself, and that Newton knew what he was talking about.

I remind myself of what my mom told me growing up: you have goals, and so do other people. If you don’t fulfill them, time is going to pass – mercilessly – and other people will accomplish your goals. I force myself to consider that the first step is the hardest, and that any movement sets the stage for more. So I make lists of short and long-term goals and convert them into sets of tasks which I set to timers. It doesn’t bother me that sometimes it is fear propelling me forward now. Fear of a future regretting time lost, fear of becoming a ball of self-resentment and what-ifs. When this fear is too strong, it brings me dangerously close to those debilitating feelings again – but it doesn’t reach that point as long as I am able to check tasks off the list that bring me closer to achieving my goals, and if I remind myself that the point isn’t just self-fulfillment, but God. Because if the point was just self-fulfillment, I might fall short of all of my goals – but if the point is self-fulfillment in the service of God, then even if I don’t accomplish everything on my list or end up somewhere different than I imagined, it was not for naught.

This post was written by R.K. Almajali – one caffeine-obsessed book hoarder who dreams of opening up a literary cafe where people can pay at least half their bill in flowers and art. She (almost consistently) writes about women, relationships, language, grief, and how the personal is always political. She can be reached at r.k.almajali@gmail.com

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