Are You Facing a Quarter or Midlife 'Crisis'?

This past year, I have had numerous reporters ask me to explain what women go through in their mid-life crisis and why women around the age of 29 are going through a quarter-life crisis. I was included in a televised discussion this week on HuffPost Live with a number of women facing or recently passing their 30th birthday, giving me the chance to hear how they define their torment.

I found both similarities and differences between quarter- and mid-life examinations. I believe the quarter-life crisis is coming to the forefront as leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer are pushing women to assess their professional and life values early in their careers.

Most women seriously reflect on the choices they have made and the career-life paths they are on when transitioning into a new decade of life (men do too, but this post focuses on women). You may feel lost as your priorities shift and the question, "Will my future give me happiness and fulfillment?" creates stress instead of hopeful anticipation.

The problem is that no one has defined what "fulfillment" looks like, so the quest has no specific destination. This all adds up to a restless craving to realize your potential which peaks as you approach each decade of your life. However, the angst you feel when experiencing each life passage is triggered by a different desire.¹ Here are a few examples:

Age 30 - The questions focus on career choices. The yearning is to ensure long-term happiness. "Will the choices I make around my career and family make me happy in the long run?" You may have already made a career move or landed in an "accidental career." You might struggle when differentiating societal, peer and family "shoulds" from your personal desires, but deride yourself for not figuring it out already. This could lead to a big career or life change, including starting your own business.

Age 40 - The questions focus on life purpose. The yearning is to ensure the significance and value of your efforts. You might be coping with ongoing inequality in your workplace or just feel misunderstood and mismanaged. There might be a "niggling" voice that says you have a bigger dream and purpose to achieve. You could recreate yourself at work or drop off the corporate ladder unless the organization is big enough to give you a lateral move to explore what else is possible. If you decide to move on, you might face some hits and misses before you successfully land on a new path.

Age 50 - The questions focus on legacy. The yearning is to ensure age-defying relevance. You face age discrimination more than men so you seek to seen as relevant as try to decide what you will do to share the wisdom you gained over the years. You might pursue richer ways to apply your talent and skills. Or you might look for ways to give back to the communities that supported your growth up to now. For some, this pursuit feels less driven than in previous years. For others, the yearning is just as strong but feels more universal than personal.

You might define your quarter- and mid-life assessments differently, as we are all unique. Some women pass through the stages with more ease than others. I welcome your comments and experiences.

Regardless of what questions you are grappling with right now, here are some questions that could help you embrace your restlessness as an opportunity for self-exploration and growth instead of letting it feel disruptive, confusing and scary.

  • What have I accomplished that I am proud of? Does this work still fulfill me or is the joy disappearing? Is there something I need to let go of in order to move forward?
  • Is there something more important and fulfilling that I can focus on now? What conversations am I having that bring me alive?
  • What do I want more of in my life? What yearning is emerging?
  • What have I been afraid to do? What step do I dare take now to find out what is on the other side?

Questioning your journey as you pass into new life phases is good practice even if it is uncomfortable. Most people will tell you it will all turn out OK. If you begin to feel like a stranger to yourself, find other women who are as restless as you and are willing to challenge the status quo of their existence. A good coach who specializes in life transitions can help as well. Hopefully, it won't be long before you come to love the new person you see.

¹ The research that defined these phases can be found in Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010.