What Psychologists Tell Us About The Quarter-Life Crisis

The following essay was written by our fantastic Intern: Mara Sousa. She wrote it as part of her psychology degree. She suggests that one of the key themes with those experiencing the quarter-life crisis is people who have an external locus of control. This means that you believe that the events in your life are somewhat out of control and down to luck or misfortune. The remedy for this is to take responsibility for your life and ownership over your actions and decisions. To deeply realise that you have more control than you think, and to exercise that control meaningfully.

What Psychologists Tell Us About The Quarter-Life Crisis


January 15, 2024

By Mara Sousa

Quarter-Life Crisis – What is it?

A quarter-life crisis is a period that may happen between the ages of 18-35 years old, that is characterised by feelings of stress, overwhelmingness, and struggle to cope. It lasts at least a year, and it is a common stage of questioning the direction of our lives and pondering whether we are on the right path (Petrov et al., 2022; Robinson & Wright, 2013).

Crisis – Can it be Positive?

Psychologists highlight this stage as normal and, indeed, essential for development (they call it developmental crises) (Erikson, 1968). This challenging period is a powerful motive for change and hence sparks curiosity about new life perspectives, new coping mechanisms and new ideas. In fact, research indicates that those who undergo a crisis period often learn more about themselves than those who do not experience it. This happens because those who are happy with their lives have little motive to find a new path or meaning in their lives, as well as to adopt new coping mechanisms or find out more about themselves, whereas individuals in crisis are forced by circumstances to look for a change. Thus, old habits are replaced with more effective ones and an opportunity for self-discovery and redirection of our path emerges.

Main Characteristics of a Crisis

Petrov and his colleagues (2022) have identified five predominant characteristics of crisis in all age groups. Do you relate to any of these?

1. You have Reached a Turning Point

Transitional ages (such as becoming an adult or moving towards the middle ages) bring big changes and uncertainties in things like who you are, your relationships, your job, and personal responsibilities. Dealing with all these changes can make you feel a bit off balance and uncertain, making it more likely for a crisis to happen (Levinson, 1986).

2. You Are In The Transition to Adulthood (18-22)

Psychologists say being emotionally mature can help prevent mental health issues and handle life challenges better. This suggests that young adults might struggle more during tough times and might need extra support (Erikson, 1968; Robinson, 2012). Common challenges during early adulthood include figuring out who you are and what you want in life (identity exploration), dealing with the stress of career choices, navigating relationships, handling financial pressures, and pondering the meaning of life (Arnett, 2000).

3. You Are In The Transition to 30’s (28-33) and 30’s Decade

A crisis can result during these transitions if, upon reflection of our commitments, we find no meaning in them or if they cause us intense distress (Petrov et al., 2022).

4. You Feel Overwhelmed

Feelings of overwhelm and distress arise when previously reliable coping strategies no longer seem to work, often due to heightened stress from external factors (Smith, 1970; Halpern, 1973).

5. You Are Seeking Meaning

An increase in questioning is identified, as well as reflecting and meaning seeking (Denne & Thompson, 1991). This happens precisely because individuals experience a breakdown in their purpose alongside the disintegration of their life structure, which compels them to seek a renewed sense of purpose (Petrov et al., 2022). Reports show that individuals undergoing a crisis have been found to read more self-help books than their peers (Robinson et al., 2017). Interestingly, intensified attention to death-related matters is commonly found to be characteristic of this period, showcasing the emphasis on reflecting on life as a whole and its multiple realms (Butėnaitė et al., 2016). 

6. You have challenges with your identity

It is equally common that individuals become conscious of the fact that they have disregarded or suppressed certain aspects of their self and identity (Denne & Thompson, 1991). As an illustration, the changes in identity during early adult crisis episodes have been described as a clash between genuine characteristics and artificial personas created for social acceptance and concealing supposedly inappropriate tendencies (Robinson & Smith, 2010). During the crisis, the individual may explore the expression of previously hidden facets of their self. The self-analytical nature of a crisis then leads the person to question their identity, constituting a fundamental element in reconstructing the internal aspect of the life structure (Becker, 1997; Linley & Joseph, 2004; Robinson & Wright, 2013).

7. You Feel Intense Negative Emotions

Intense negative emotions might include distress due to future uncertainty, feelings of lack of control (Caplan, 1964), depressive symptoms (Robinson & Stell, 2015), and anguish stemming from the inability to cope (Petrov et al., 2022). A crisis is, then, evaluated as a specific type of intense life event, marked by challenges, stress, and negative emotions. In hindsight, it is seen as a crucial turning point or a significant moment in the individual’s life journey (Robinson, 2008). Indeed, the literature suggests that these intense negative emotions compel individuals to re-evaluate their lifestyles, explore new life directions and worldviews, as well as adjust goals (Carver & Scheier, 1998; Robinson, 2020).

How Does Control Perception Influence Crisis?

Tough life situations can be a lot to handle and make people feel like they’re losing control. This often pushes individuals in crisis to start relying more on external factors for a sense of control. This change happens because of the temporary feeling of being overwhelmed and the belief that their usual coping strategies aren’t working.

Control can be described as the ability to influence outcomes by directly affecting actions, people, and events. When viewed from this perspective, it becomes evident that it is impossible to have complete control over every aspect of our lives. Some things are within our control, while others are not. The word control takes on even greater interest when preceded by the phrase “locus of”. “Locus” itself refers to a position, point, or place where something happens or occurs. Locus of control is, then, our perception of where control resides when we explain our successes and failures.

Locus of control is a universal trait that can coexist within any of us. We can have both types of locus of control simultaneously, and they may switch between them, but there is usually one dominant control type that prevails. When an event is seen as predominantly the result of luck, coincidence or due to someone else, this belief is termed an external locus of control, signifying that the perception of control lies outside of one’s power. On the other hand, events attributed to one’s identity and direct actions reflect a belief in an internal locus of control, meaning the perception of control is believed to be within the individual’s power and influence (Rotter, 1966).

Most research suggests that having an internal locus of control orientation is more favourable. Indeed, as per Wilson (2022) and Leist & Leist (2022), perceiving control as internal acts as a protective factor against chronic illnesses and other major challenging events. This happens because individuals with an internal locus of control tend to be proactive in turning negative events into positive outcomes based on their belief in the influence of their actions. This is consistent with the research paper presented by Smith (1970) where the treatment program used on people in crisis reduced levels of external locus of control by focusing on the shifting belief that individuals have enough influence to control what is happening to them (Lefcourt & Davidson-Katz ,1991).

In conclusion, research consistently suggests that in times of crisis, people tend to perceive control as external (external locus of control), whereas in non-crisis periods, control is seen as internal (internal locus of control). It’s crucial for us to consciously shift our perception of control during a crisis, recognising our ability to influence aspects of our situation. By focusing on what we can change, we empower ourselves to make meaningful adjustments in alignment with our desired transformations.


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