i thought life was supposed to look like this (rainbow linear maze)

Quarter-life crisis before and after 26

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*Originally posted on my previous personal blog (bylydiac)

For those who know me, you may know that I am a bit.. hyper aware about my age, not because I actually care about my age and growing old, but rather I am aware of it from a personal growth perspective. How have I changed from who I was 5 years ago? 1 year ago? What do I hope to happen in the next few years? I ruminate on this state of being in a “quarter life crisis” every couple of days. It’s just how I’ve always been. My brain has been tainted with existential angst since the days puberty hit, or maybe it’s just part of having anxiety.

What’s interesting though, is that this existential anxiety, existential crisis, quarter life crisis, whatever you want to call it, has evolved over the years. It’s never been quite the same. Now those times I thought I was having a quarter life crisis in my early twenties, 26 year old me is looking back not able to be as empathetic to my younger self because my worries and concerns seemed to be all quite shallow. Oh, how quick we can change and transform in just a few years…

But first to give you a brief background on what kind of person I am. I remember reading this book called “Defining your Twenties: Why your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now” when I was still in high school. That’s right, I wasn’t even in my twenties yet and I was reading a book about how to make the most of my twenties. That just shows you how much I was anticipating this stage of my life. By the way, I don’t remember a single thing from that book. Reading the reviews on Goodreads makes me think I would not be able to get through the book today.

I thought life looked like this up until I was 18 years old

I’ve struggled with mild depression for parts of my adolescent and adult life and I remember thinking to myself that to get through life and to try to enjoy it, I had to have things to look forward to and things I wanted to do. I had hoped that in my twenties, I would be pushing myself out of my comfort zone and be really chasing my dreams, because that was the only way I’d not be depressed, and actually enjoy my life. I guess I had high hopes for my twenties? It is what the images showed: youth, romance, pursuing our dreams, making great friends, taking risks, and just glamorous coming-of-age things.

Now that I am more than halfway through my twenties, and have spent a decent amount of it toiling away in school and corporate day jobs while feeling aimless with my dreams being too out of reach, I had kept thinking I was living out my twenties the the “wrong” way.

But the truth is, I totally was living it out the right way, and I probably still am. Because there is no “right” way to live out this stage of our lives. I have been pushed out of my comfort zone over and over again. I struggled and continue to struggle with figuring out who I am, who do I want to be, in a society that is constantly telling you what you should be. I may not be pursuing what I dreamt about at 22 years old, nor do I want to pursue the exact same thing I wanted at 22, but I am now knowing myself better and that image of what I “want” simultaneously looks clearer and blurrier.

I have only recently come to accept that in adulthood, no one knows what they are REALLY doing. Sure, they know what they are supposed to be doing, but there is no formula for how to live life, so really we’re all just improvising along the way. Also, at this stage of life in our mid-twenties, we also don’t even know who we really are. Some people might have a better idea, but I don’t. It’s only been the last couple of months that I’ve been able to shut off what society and external forces expect of me, to clear my mind a bit for what it is that I want.

I find it funny that looking back at myself even 2-3 years ago (I was reading journal entries from 2018 earlier) and I sounded so… SURE about what I wanted to do and how I was not doing what I wanted to do. I was digging myself into misery because I thought I was doing it all wrong. But that’s how it was supposed to go.

Now I am a few hundred days older, and it’s become blatantly clear that how I was during those years was exactly how I was meant to be. Uncertainly certain. I was so sure at the time that I knew what I would rather be doing. And now? I am certainly uncertain. I don’t actually know what it is that I want to do with 100% clarity. I know the direction I want to head, I know what I want to fill my days with. But I am more open to it changing, and I am more open to the unknown, the unstructured. I’m learning to trust me, future me, to know that I will keep heading in the direction that I want, even if that may mean not know exactly what is going to do or how precisely I am going to get there.

The quarter life crisis panic is still there, so is the existential dread, and you know it knocks at my door every evening as soon as I shut my laptop and finish work for the day. The existential dread pops up, knocks on my forehead, and asks “what’s up?” “who are you?” “what ARE you going to do with your life?” But the only response I can gather is “my head hurts” and “I’m hungry” then I proceed to lie on the ground and stare at the ceiling to let go of the work day.

The crisis today feels quite different from how it did, even 1 and a half years ago. I remember I was at a happy hour event, slightly tipsy, describing how I was feeling to my younger coworker and her partner who had just graduated from university. I was explaining that I am 25 (!!!) and how I am in the middle of my quarter life crisis. The crisis is why am I working the 9-6 job and making decent salary and living in a great city with so much going and yet still feeling so unhappy. I don’t think they could relate, but at least I got my angst out.

sometimes, it was blurry but the path was still clear

Back then I attributed it to it being a “quarter life crisis” very simply. Didn’t dig deeper. Just assumed it was part of being newly 25. I assumed that the quarter life crisis was about not doing what I would have rather been doing, with the grass-is-greener on the other side syndrome, but not really thinking beyond just how miserable I was. There was not much deep introspection at the time, since I attributed capitalism as the reason I was doomed to feel stuck in this rut forever.

A few months after I turned 26, I felt my brain change. Not physically, but I felt it. I can’t explain it. Just one day I woke up and realized I don’t actually REALLY know what I want in life, and feeling like my past self from post-college years was kinda silly. I’m still silly, but now with the awareness in not taking myself too seriously. I had started to question what is it that I even want? I became less sure about the things I thought I wanted (with immense certainty at the time) even just a few months ago.

Then the introspection happened. Oh… is this the real quarter-life crisis? Last year, I thought the crisis was feeling miserable at my job and wanting to be doing something different. But now, the quarter life crisis is realizing I don’t even know who I am and what I want, and I’ve reached a stage in my life where it’s finally time to start discovering that. Wow, what a privilege, and also what a hard thing to do.

I imagine we have quarter-life crisis’ because all our lives, the direction on how to live life or what to do next was very clear. From birth to graduating college, the steps were laid out in front of us. We knew what we’d be doing for a few years and didn’t have to think outside of those years. Parents and societal expectations helped us have it all figured out. We knew what we were doing in a few months, in a year, in a few years. Go to school. Go to college. Get a job. Get married. Have kids. Retire. It’s the same narrative for a lot of people living in the privileged western world, but of course this expected structure is not for everyone, in fact I don’t think it works for most people. I had followed this formula non-questioning up through college, thinking that once I had my first job, I would be set for life because I would just *know* what to do next.

Well, it’s only been a few years since college ended, but it was clearly not the case that I’d be “set” after my first job out of college and that I’d just *know* what to do next. Truth is, there is no right time to leave a job, start a job, date, get married, have kids, buy a house, travel the world. Also deciding what to do next doesn’t just come to us out of thin air. It takes a lot of thought to get there. There is also no need to do any of the above, besides the job part since we all need money to survive.

I did not know what to do after my first job, I did not know where to start with the ideas in my head or how to start pursuing them, I did not know when it was time to look for another job, or anything. No one was there to tell me what to do, I had to decide it for myself. So I made decisions and stumbled, as we all do.

In college, my idea of the life path got blurrier

I think this whole “I get to decide how I want to live my life 100%” is what has really hit me at 26. I remember growing up admiring adults who had peculiar hobbies or fashion choices that were less conventional. Now with social media, seeing all the niche hobbies people have and how differently people live their lives from what people spend their free time doing to what people choose to become experts on — it’s inspiring to see people craft out a life that works for them. It had not hit me until recently that I, too, get to live my life out how I want to. How do I want to, though? I believe I have the rest of my life to figure that out.

My early to mid twenties makes sense now. It’s not humanly possible to go from someone who lives life based on a clear structure to living with little to no structure. Yes, humans can adapt, but it takes time. In my early twenties, I was still living with structure. Except that instead of it being pre-determined by my parents or by societal expectations, I had created a structure for myself full of “shoulds” largely based off of what I thought people in this age “should” be doing. Essentially, I was living with this “shoulds” structure up until very recently. I was so used to living with structure and clear expectations, I had just mindlessly kept these expectations up, but only now do I realize how fragile that structure was because it was created externally and not cultivated for me, despite it being…my life.

What did this self-imposed structure look like? Well, I thought people in their twenties spend their time exploring a lot, and go out for drinks and make friends, they work and then take PTO and travel, they go on frequent weekend trips, they eat out at nice restaurants on the weekdays, they go to happy hours, they save up with the intention to buy a house, they take every opportunity they can to meet new people or to create community and friends, they network constantly, they are fit and healthy, they are either productively working or productively having fun. They are non-stop doing things and seem to always be enjoying it, or bonding over their struggles together, and when they’re not working, they have hobbies they get really into.

After college, I created a self-imposed path of what  I thought life should be

I was living based on these “shoulds” when I first started working post-college and started to live an “adult” life. Working a desk job in a liberal metropolis in the U.S. with evenings and weekends off. The thing is, the “shoulds” made me very miserable. I was constantly comparing myself to others, seeing what stage of life they were at, how much are they making? where did they travel to? people are getting married and buying houses? people are making friends at social events or socializing every Friday night? people are spending their money exploring restaurants? going on trips every weekend? going to bars and dance parties? meeting new people?

I was miserable not because I was not able to do these things, but because I put the effort into doing these things and still found myself quite unhappy. I later realized that it was because I was doing things that I didn’t even like to do. Instead of doing things because I wanted to, I was doing things because I thought I should, based on whatever identities I had. And if wasn’t doing these things I thought I “should” have, then I was a “bad” person and I “failed” at life. It was a toxic cycle where I would go out and socialize and really try to put myself out there, and do what I thought a twenty something year old SHOULD be doing, and then feel drained afterwards. Instead of realizing the structure was not for me, I just thought something was wrong with me and I needed to fix myself.

Deep down I always knew I did not have the same aspirations or goals as what the societal “shoulds”” were, or at least what I thought societal “shoulds” were. But I still felt a lot of pressure to stick to this “structure” and try to make it work. I was a round peg trying to fit myself into a square hole.

Before the pandemic hit, I was still very much absorbed in the “shoulds” of life which explained why I was not happy. I automatically just thought “oh, it’s because of my quarter life crisis”. But now that I am a year deep into the pandemic and my brain has altered towards its mature self, I realize that me living the “shoulds” was expected at that stage of life, because after having structure for most of our early lives, there had to be a breaking point, or rather a transition, to a life without structure. I had been running on automatic, finding “shoulds” and structure and applying it to myself, without personalizing what these “shoulds” even were, and just assuming I had to run with it.

My breaking point was around when the pandemic hit, when I was feeling at an all time low and miserable in life. The pandemic made the world stand still in many ways, which is a deceiving thought, because the world was still moving and time was still passing. I had less FOMO because I didn’t have to constantly be looking at what other people were doing with their time and compare it to how I was spending my time. At the same time, I looked inward, worked on myself, and also gave myself time to grow and evolve.

A year into the pandemic and my self-reflection journey, and with a new and different sense of having a “quarter life crisis”, I had moved past living by the “shoulds” in life. A lot of things are familiar at this point, like cooking for myself, doing laundry, renting apartment, making a salary to afford to live, handling my finances, taking care of myself etc. And because I am familiar with the actions of being an adult now, and have let go of the “shoulds” structure, it’s like suddenly space has cleared up in my head and in my life to start cultivating a life that is meaningful to me.

As I shed the “shoulds” of life and realizing that life going forward does NOT have a pre-determined structure. Life can literally be just what I want it to be. I am building that structure for myself while living it at the same time. No other structure exists. Sure, there are the structures society expects you to follow (job, house, marriage, kids), but so many people do not live by that structure and instead live on their own terms. It’s empowering to see people living out their lives with their own definition, and am only striving for it in my own life. Also, I’ve seen firsthand through family, how miserable following this structure can be if it really is not meant for you, but is followed anyway.

Only now, do I realize that life is not a path. But a messy, beautiful, process.

The quarter life crisis doesn’t really feel like a crisis now, but actually feels like a rebirth of sorts. Like wait, I get to choose how to live my life? I get to do what I feel like doing? Or do what I want to do? I get the opportunity to try things out and figure out what it is that I want to do? Why did I not feel this way after college? Why did it take me 3 years after college to realize this?

It’s because the 3 years post-college are, in my eyes, the “freshman” year of adulthood. Just like the freshman year of college, or high school, it’s the year we transitioned and departed what we were used to. It was a year of exploration and going with the flow, saying “yes” more than we can handle because we think we should, not because we want to. It wasn’t until the later years of college when we made intentional decisions and chose specific paths to follow like what we wanted to major in, who we wanted to hang out with, what clubs we wanted to dedicate our time to.

The freshman phase of adulthood was similar. We transitioned from college/school and spent our time exploring and going with the flow, not necessarily making explicit decisions for ourselves, but rather going with what was expected from us. But as the novelty of the job or the city or the lifestyle of adulthood fades, we get clearer about knowing what we don’t want, and get clearer about wanting to pursue what we do want, and accepting that we also don’t know who we are yet.

I feel like my freshman phase of adulthood is coming to an end. And the next chapter is beginning. I am a bit more confident than before, care a lot less about the “shoulds” of life, and know how to better stand up for my own boundaries. The quarter-life crisis has not gone anywhere, it’s still there, but softer now, not an enemy, but rather, a friend.

UPDATE: I created an illustration more recently (May 2021) and thought I’d add it here as a nice lil bonus — we are all living contradictions, and that’s okay. That’s HUMAN..

we are living contradictions
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