Am I an adolescent or an adult? Why is it that nothing seems right anymore and when is this going to end?
Welcome to the quarter-life experience!
Emerging adulthood is a developmental stage that usually starts at the age of 18 and may last till 29 years for some. This is an important period of change to ones cognitive, emotional, physical, social and relational domain and is necessary for growth in emotional, intellectual, identity and values formation and functioning. The emerging independence allow one opportunities to explore love, work and worldviews which is necessary to develop the qualities needed for self-sufficiency and acceptance of the roles and responsibilities for subsequent adult life. In fact no other stage in life other than infancy does one go through such complex and dynamic changes in terms of emotional, social and neuroanatomical changes.
This is a stage that is often characterized by the following experiences:
- Exploration into one’s identify, questioning one-self such as “who am I”, “what do I really want” and experiencing increasing confused and vague self-perception.
- Forging of independence and focus on what you want to do rather than following your peers and what other’s want of you.
- Intense scrutiny of self in comparison to others. For some, this intensity can appear somewhat narcissistic though it is a developmental stage and should be temporary. For some, the intense comparative focus on self and others can cause dissatisfaction.
- Most pervasive feeling in this age group is the sense that you are neither an adolescent or a an adult. Research has shown that this ‘ in-between’ feeling is experienced by almost 50% of the population in this age category.
- Due to the transition in role expectations and changes in support level provided by family and institution in guidance and support, this can be a season of instability in many aspects of life and may affect work, relationships and even sense of self. Often adjustment to work life increases the stress of an already perplexing time. Some common feelings associated to work-life includes:
- Imposter syndrome, when one feels incompetent despite evidence of competency through academic or professional training.
- Difficulty adjusting to the steep learning curve of employment with less feedback and guidance as compared to school life.
- Feeling unproductive at work compared to school life since most would have reached a high level of academic knowledge in a specific field.
- Difficulty adapting to organisational culture of the work-place.
- While for many, this season presents endless possibilities and optimism, for some this time present a sense of loss for the ‘old’ way of life, confusion about the future resulting in turmoil and psychological distress.
3 factors that influence response and adjustment to this season of life.
The thinking brain or the prefrontal cortex is only fully mature when a person is in their twenties and for some even at the age thirty. Neurobiologically mature pre-frontal cortex is necessary for decision making, goal directedness, future orientation, problem solving, delay gratification, emotional regulation and interpersonal relationships. Several factors may interfere with the neurodevelopment of this part of the brain that hampers a person’s ability to thrive at this stage in life, such as adverse childhood experiences and chronic stress. Use of drugs and alcohol abuse prior to full maturation of the brain can further impair proper cognitive development.
Most developmental mental health disorders would have surfaced before a person reaches the age of thirty. Psychotic symptoms would usually manifest by mid-twenties while other disorders such as depression and anxiety disorder may start earlier in the adolescent years.
The formation of identity often starts in adolescent years lending to stability in young adulthood and is important for psychological and moral identity of a person. How one sees themselves as being different from others, the roles they play in their community are important components of identity formulation.
How a person navigates the complexities of the quarterlife experience is dependent on the ability to adapt to changes internally and externally. A resilient person will have better internal adaption such as a healthy self-concept, sense of well-being and happiness, and is more able to manage external adaption such as demand of study, work or committing to lifelong relationships.
How resilient a person is to the demands of this stage of life can be seen in goal-directed motivations and future orientation. Tangible and intangible personal resources, social support and mentorship are undergirding factors contributing to the much needed resilience to weather this stage of life. More importantly, the sense of hope, such as knowing what one is capable in doing, a level of self-efficacy and knowledge of alternative opportunities contribute to one’s level of resilience.
What can you do to weather through this soul searching stormy stage?
- Understand and learn to regulate your emotions
- Be self-aware and know your strengths, personal resources and assets
- Discover what is really important to you and what gives you fulfillment in life
- Set goals that match who you are and where you are in your journey
- Validate yourself, don’t compare yourself to other but also allow feedback from trusted people who can guide you in this journey.