The language of a quarter-life crisis

Oh how us twentysomethings love labels. Like a “quarter-life crisis” for instance, we love to use this phrase to describe the uncertain and anxiety filled existence that is our twenties.  But how can we tell if we’re actually having one? How are we supposed to feel? For a while I thought a quarter-life crisis was just the grown up version of how we felt when we were thirteen and weren’t invited to certain parties and constantly compared bra sizes with our friends. Replace parties with job opportunities and bra sizes with success and boyfriends, and you got yourself all the ingredients for a good old fashion quarter-life crisis.

I won’t lie. I don’t think I’m going through a crisis right now, but a few weeks ago my boyfriend used the term when describing his current life and career qualms to me, and it got me thinking. I was hearing a lot of “shoulds” from him: “Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?” or “I should be further along in my career, shouldn’t I?”  I must admit I too have had those conversations with myself and I’m only 23. Frankly, I believe we start thinking this way the minute we step off stage at graduation.  I always thought it was normal until I heard someone say it out loud. “Should” is the language of a quarter-life crisis.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying every twentysomething who’s using this word is having a life crisis. I’m not even sure my boyfriend is having one. I just think it’s a word that could fuel it. If you’re comparing yourself to your friends or even your own ambition for that matter, it’s easy to get wrapped up in what you think you should be doing. If I had a quarter for every time I stalked LinkedIn to find out about a peer’s new job or spent more than a couple minutes trying to guess a friend’s salary, I would have enough change for a year of laundry. The reality is I’m not living their life. I’m living mine. And my guess is those people I’m comparing myself with are probably doing the exact same thing.

So what does this all mean? It was weird for me to hear my boyfriend talk about how behind he felt, how he felt his accomplishments thus far didn’t matter cause he’s not were he thought he should be. I couldn’t believe how someone so talented in my eyes didn’t recognize their potential. I knew I was catching him in a rare sensitive guy moment and would be a fool to shout “are you crazy?!”, so instead I channeled my inner Dr. Meg Jay (author of The Defining Decade, if you haven’t read it, run to the bookstore) and told him: “the only person keeping tabs on you is you.”

Most of our compulsive need to compare and “stay ahead of the pack” comes from this idea that other people are keeping track of us. The only person who really knows how happy you are or how successful you are, is you. So instead of thinking about what you should do, consider what you want. I now think about how all my boyfriend’s “should statements” can be redesigned into questions that actually spark some positive forward momentum. For example:

This: “I should be at a job I love.”

Becomes: “Am I happy doing what I’m doing? If not, how do I change it?”

This:“I should be making x amount by now.”

Becomes: “What salary is really realistic for me right now based on my experience, and what steps do I need to take to make what I want to make?”

This: “I should be going on some type of adventure in my twenties, everyone else is doing it.”

Becomes: “What exactly do I want to do? What does my adventure look like and how can I make it happen?”

Suffice to say I’ve edited myself a lot the last few weeks trying to avoid the “should statements”. However changing your language is just the first step. If you can change the way you think, well now you’re definitely buying yourself some time on a life crisis.

Meredith Gonsalves

Meredith Gonsalves is an editor and digital enthusiast who moved to Chicago six years ago to pursue a career in media. She has a degree in Journalism from DePaul University and has worked for news organizations such as CBS and the Tribune. In 2014, Meredith launched Work It Web (, as a way to help other women entrepreneurs elevate their business online. In her spare time she is a career and professional development mentor to her fellow Blue Demons. She has had a number of speaking engagements at DePaul on everything from building a personal brand to making the most of an internship. If you catch her on the weekends she will most likely be scouring a neighborhood farmers market, or on another biking adventure with her new mint green beach cruiser.