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Breaking Through A Quarter-Life Crisis With Psychotherapist Tess Brigham

Today on The GenTwenty Podcast, Nicole and Marina chat with Tess Brigham, an expert psychotherapist, certified life coach, and public speaker on how millennials can discover their true life path. You’re not alone in feeling lost, stressed out, and confused. Tess shares her experiences and expertise to help bring clarity to the quarter-life crisis.

Connect with Tess at tessbrigham.com or tesbrighamcoaching.com or on Instagram at @tess_brigham.

Thank you to Serena from Get Me Out Of This Job for sponsoring this episode. Learn more about Get Me Out of This Job here and follow on Instagram here. Mention GenTwenty and get 10% off your coaching package.

Thank you to Fandemonium Design for sponsoring this episode. Find them out on Instagram here!


This transcript has been gently edited for clarity.

Nicole Booz: Welcome back to the GenTwenty Podcast. I’m Nicole…

Marina Crouse: And I’m Marina! Today we’re talking with Tess Brigham, an expert psychotherapist, certified life coach, and public speaker, dubbed the millennial therapist by CNBC. She specializes in helping millennials discover their unique life path in order to go out into the world and make an impact. Tess, can you tell us a little bit yourself and why you decided to focus on helping millennials?

Tess Brigham: So, I often say that I didn’t choose millennials, millennials chose me. I’ve been working with people for over 15 years and about ten years ago I opened up a practice in downtown San Francisco. So, I’m out here in California with this idea that was relatively new and I was like “okay well I’ll just get some space and whomever shows up” and what happened was that young adults started showing up. I was like “oh these are these millennials I’ve heard so much about” and “wait a second. They’re not entitled or lazy! They don’t think of themselves as special snowflakes!” What’s the disconnect between what the media is saying and what I’m seeing right in front of me?

It was really interesting because I had spent a big chunk of my twenties in San Francisco and it started flooding back all of my own feelings of being young. Questions like “is this really what I want to do with my life” and “how do I find do I want to find love how do I find love?”  “What does that look like?” Just all of the anxiety and stress that came along with not quite knowing who you are but having to make all these big, big life decisions in the meantime.

So it was very interesting and at the same time I realized as my clients were talking I was like “oh well, the world that we live in is so different.” We have social media. We have the internet, we have so many things that weren’t a factor when I was young and how these things really impacted young people and how they saw themselves and how they felt about themselves. How that got in their way as they’re trying to figure out who they are so that’s how it all came about.

I got very interested in what twenty-something years all about. What is the focus and  the experience of being young in this world and so now obviously my millennial clients are all getting older, and younger people are coming in and they’re a different generation, but the issues and problems are the same. It’s these core essential issues that everyone goes through at some point in their life. Even if you don’t go through it in your twenties, you’re going to go through it at some point of asking yourself these bigger questions of “who am I, what do I want? Why am I here? What’s it all about?” And then having to make some decisions based on that. That really determines the kind of work you want to do the kind of life. You want to live all of those things.

Marina Crouse: Oh, man yeah, we relate to that. GenTwenty is quite passionate about the twenties experience and I know for myself I went through that kind of identity crisis when I was a sophomore in college and had to pick a major and felt like “okay, nothing matters. What am I going to do with my French major?” And then again when I was in my early twenties I was working a job I really hated and I was so stuck and I struggled both times figuring out how to move anywhere out of that stuck feeling and I just remember sobbing on the phone to my mom, shaking because I was so afraid about this pressure I felt to pick the ultimately right thing. I think we get sold the idea that you have to choose your life path at eighteen and you can’t stray from it and then people in their early twenties are like “wait, I’m not doing great.” Everyone I know has had a quarter life crisis and we want to talk to you about breaking through that. So can you talk a little bit about like what this proverbial quarter life crisis is and how how to start getting unstuck?

Tess Brigham: Yeah, so I I often say, because people come to me and say “well, I don’t know am I going through a crisis, am I not going through a crisis?” and I always say that if you feel like you’re going through a crisis then you’re going through a crisis. Denying the feelings isn’t going to help. And the other thing about the quarter life crisis is I think people think that it has to happen when you’re 25 and it can happen at various times of your life. It’s really about it’s when you start to question your life choices. It’s definitely an existential crisis around  “who am I? What does this all mean? Why am I doing what I’m doing?” and I see a lot of the times that people come to me and it usually happens closer to  27- 28 because I think a lot of times there’s something about turning 30, right?

There’s this myth in the twenty-something years, that 30 is the endpoint that by the time you reach 30 you’re supposed to have the ideal job for you, be in the most awesome relationship at the very least, maybe engaged or in a serious relationship. You have to have the fabulous apartment, your whole life has to be set and you’re on your way, and if you don’t have those things checked off by 30 that somehow you failed. And so a lot of times you’ll see people that are getting closer to 30 starting to say “oh wait a second not only am I not there yet, but I’ve now been working in the workforce five or six years and I’m working in this job that at 18 that I thought I would love but I hate, and I’m looking forward in my life and I’m going to be working for the next forty years. Is this really it is this my life?”  So it’s a crisis of who you are as a person. It’s a crisis of how you want to live your life. It’s a crisis of how you make what are the choices that you want to make. But certainly it can hit people at other times of their lives and it can hit in smaller ways.  The best thing that I can tell people is that it’s not so much about trying to define it. It’s more about what is all of this telling me like how do I react to it. What do I do about these feelings that I’m having. That’s the most important part.

Nicole Booz: Yeah I think those are all such important points and there’s so much to unpack when it comes to a quarter life crisis and I think that it is such an important point for everyone listening that it doesn’t necessarily happen in the middle of your twenties. It can happen in your later twenties. And as we approach 30 where we’ve put it as some kind of deadline for something that it’s really not a deadline for anything. It just seems like this big number looming in the future where you’re supposed to like have reached some kind of finishing point. What I’m really interested in is why are millennials feeling so much pressure so early and what is leading up to these moments of crisis?

Tess Brigham:  I think it really has to do with this world that we live in today, of social media and just general information. When I was in my twenties there was an internet but wasn’t common. It wasn’t like people were emailing each other so much and there was no social media. So my frame of reference was really sort of looking around at the other people my age and where they were in their lives and it was like oh okay, we’re all kind of poor and we’re all kind of struggling and none of us seemed to know what we’re doing so you would look around and kind of feel like okay I’m in the right spot right? Like there was there was comparison, you might be able to pick up a magazine and compare yourself to some model or actor on the cover but the world that we live in today…It’s like everyone has a platform, everyone has the ability to share their opinions and their thoughts and feelings and they also have the ability to share the story of themselves and their lives and what they’re doing.

Social media  is one of those things where it’s really easy, all you have to do if you’re a young person today is all you have to do is  get on social media look up a couple friends and it looks like they’re having the most fabulous life. The person that you dated in high school or you just go on LinkedIn and see what your former coworker is doing and it seems like they’re just killing it. They’re getting all these awards. We have this platform now that creates a lot of anxiety and stress for people around where they are in their lives and even though because they’ve done research and studies on this like even though we intellectually know that like “oh my friend Susie, I know she hates her job.” But even though you’re seeing Susie and even though she hates her job and all these things in her life seeing her on the beach in Bali is still gives us that pang of well “why am I not doing that” and she looks like she’s having so much fun and I’m sitting here working and so therefore there’s something wrong with my life right.

So there’s this constant feeling of not doing enough. Not good enough. And even the fact that we now with technology things can happen so quickly and so there’s also that part we live in this real kind of #hustleculture of being productive and killing it all the time and and doing fifty million things before 5 a.m. and that mentality that it is really hard if you’re 27-28 and you’re looking at all of that every single day then. Obviously you’re gonna feel this feeling of “I’m not good enough or I’m not doing enough or I I haven’t achieved enough” or it’s the other one being like it’s too late or I can’t possibly, change courses or jobs now because I’ll be way behind everyone else. So maybe I should just suffer and stay here. So I think this is why you’re seeing a lot of young people responding and and having sort of these moments in time I mean the quarter life crisis. The term has been around for a while I mean I remember even in my like before I was even in my twenties like hearing it on Oprah way back in the day but I think it’s so prevalent now just because of the world that we live in and  we’re not even really touching upon the pandemic and how that’s impacted everybody. But, but yeah I think a lot of it is just this world that we live in that allows us to constantly be comparing ourselves to other people.

Marina Crouse: Oh man, yep that that checks out. As you were speaking to us I thought about how when I was early twenties like, 23 maybe, and I had just started writing for GenTwenty and felt like “oh man I think I’m getting started too late in my writing career.” And that just hurts me to think about because now I’m 30, I’m really just getting started and a lot of it was the social media which in 2013 wasn’t even as big as it is now. But comparison is such a thief of joy and it’s hard to especially when your frontal cortex or whichever part of your brain is still developing is still developing. I think we forget that we can stop comparing and that idea of “enough”… like enough is such an arbitrary word. It doesn’t mean anything if we don’t let it but what can we do to break through that panicked feeling and reassess these crises we’re going through?

Tess Brigham: Well the best thing to do is to give yourself some breathing room. To really be able to say to yourself, “Okay there’s something going on I’m not happy in my life.” There’s issues that are happening but instead of me trying to fix it right away or solve the problem or push it aside the best thing that you can do is just say :okay,I’m at a crossroads, there’s things that I need to change the things that I need to do and I am going to give myself this time and space to figure it out.”  The first step is always this giving yourself some level of acceptance and allowing acknowledgement and acceptance and allowing yourself to really recognize like something’s going on I don’t need to fix it right away but I do need to address it and as strange as it sounds when it comes to anxiety and fear, one of the best ways to deal with it is really just through the acknowledgement of it what we tend to do with fear and anxiety is we either push it down, like pretend like it’s not happening, and avoid it.

Or we, get ourselves so wrapped up into it and then we judge ourselves for it and really the best thing that you can do with fear, and this is what I tell my clients, is make it your friend.  Recognize anxiety, fear is a part of life these challenges and crossroads that you’ve hit are a part of life. And that while it’s making me feel uncomfortable, while I’m unsure about what the future looks like for me, I’m okay I will figure this out, I will get through this, and I don’t really have anything to be afraid of. And really just being able to when I talk about fear being your friend, it’s really around seeing it as something that’s there to help us because the crisis is a good thing.

I mean my own quarter life crisis when I was 27 changed my life and I’m so happy it did…but it was horrible going through it. It wasn’t fun, but it really was one of the best things that could have ever happened to me because when we feel anxiety, when we feel this level of discomfort, it’s there to tell us something in your life needs to change and and that’s okay.

You’re here to do this kind of work. This is why we’re here to begin with and then once you acknowledge and accept and allow it, the next step is to really start asking yourself these questions of “what is it that I think I really want? What makes me happy?” A lot of times with clients I’ll have them look into the past of times of their lives where they felt really excited and inspired and where it felt really meaningful to them and like where were you? what were you doing? What was that like? What values did you have? What were those moments? What were the elements that added to that moment that made you feel that way? As a way of really trying to understand like what are the things that get you wanting to get up every day and do you know, have your life.

You know, live your life and being able to look at that and really then identify where you are today and where do you have any of those things or any of those things happening for you today and what needs to change in your daily life and and the other part of it too is just allowing yourself to think about. Like what is it that I want to do and and not getting too attached to the how like how am I going to make this happen like the whole thing of deciding right? You decided to become a writer. It’s like not getting into “how am I going to make a living as a writer” and “how is this going to work” and “I’m going to starve and I’m never going to have any money.” It’s a little bit of like, do you want to live the life of a writer. Okay, is this what you want? Okay, let’s start working towards, figuring that out and seeing if that’s what you want to do versus getting stuck in the it’s gonna be so difficult. It’s gonna be so hard mentality. But it’s it’s really about the acknowledgement acceptance and then the exploration part.

Nicole Booz: Well, that’s like so much to digest I’m just sitting here thinking about all of it.

Marina Crouse: And we are on a video at the same time and we’re both just like nodding the whole time you’re talking. I took notes! I was scribbling on post-it’s to think about this and come back to this later. Yeah, and it’s crazy because what you’re asking are the questions I asked myself when I wanted to become a writer. I had such little self-confidence and such low faith in my dreams that I just didn’t even ask those questions and it wasn’t until I started to see a therapist for my anxiety and working through some of my anxieties, I was able to start asking myself, “do I really want to work in a job that I hate, do I really want to feel this way?” and it brings me back to the conversation we were having right at the beginning of the episode where it’s like you graduate and you start your job and then you’re looking at forty…you’re looking at the calendar and you’re like “okay forty years from now is this the life I want?” That’s how I got through the last iteration of my quarter life crisis… I tried the traditional way. It’s not for me now I’m going to try this and and it’s just with the inclusion of the last year and a half or two years at the point of this podcast the pandemic has really changed a lot of things for people too. Tess you actually wrote an article for us on GenTwenty about the fatigue of last year can you talk a little bit about why this last year has been so challenging when it comes to identities and paths.

Tess Brigham: Yeah, yeah, so one thing that hasn’t been acknowledged as much as it should… though I have to say one of the things about this pandemic that has been positive is I think we’re finally as a culture starting to break down a lot of barriers around mental health and what it means to see a therapist, what it means to see a life coach what it means to struggle with mental health issues… and I often say that young adults/millennials/gen-z-ers are really the ones that broke down those barriers by being these generations that were willing to talk about mental health and talk about these things.

But one of the big things that’s happened is that no matter where you’re at, no matter what your particular circumstances are, we all know that everybody’s gone through something different. For some people it has been devastating. They’ve lost loved ones, they’ve lost jobs, homes. Whole lives have been uprooted. There are other people where it’s been not so intense, but no matter where you fall on that every single one of us has had this thing happen to us that was out of our control. We did not choose this, it was out of our control and that made changes in our lives.

The idea of this virus and everything that was happening created a lot of anxiety for all of us. And so everybody for the past year and a half plus it feels like it just keeps going. We’ve all been struggling with this underlying anxiety and fear that’s been inside of us. So even if you think back to the first couple weeks and how that was and even if you weren’t that afraid or you’re like okay well I’ll just stay home, the uncertainty of everything, the unknown of everything,  if we think back to that time of “it’s 2 weeks. No, it’s a month, no it’s through the summer, now it’s the end of the year,” like if you think about all of this we’ve never had any idea when this was going to end.

We really, we still don’t even know, right? We don’t know what any of this is going to look like and so there is something very psychological about things that happen out of our control, things that happen where we don’t feel like we have a lot of control over them, and also when we don’t really know when it’s going to end it, it creates even more anxiety for us. So across the board, we’ve all been sitting with a lot of anxiety and fear and what happens over time is you talk about people that have like long-term ptsd and we’re all struggling with some level of ptsd because we’ve all been sitting in this place of unknown for so long and now as the year has turned into two years it might turn into three years…like it’s staying with us and so  that’s it’s really important to understand that maybe things that three years ago wouldn’t make you anxious are now making you anxious that having to sit with this idea of I don’t know what’s going to happen next week I don’t know what’s going to happen. That creates just a tremendous amount of fear.

So if you take a step back and look at that, if you think about how what that’s like it, it is incredibly tiring to be at this heightened state of anxiety all the time. This is what I think is one of the factors that’s created this level of burnout that everybody’s felt. But even if we’ve gotten to the point of being used to certain aspects of the pandemic, if you really think about it, every time we leave our house,  we do feels some level of “oh should I get too close to this person, should I wear my mask, should I not wear my mask, tthat’s the rule, what’s not the rule” Like, if I’m wearing my mask is someone going to have an issue with me wearing my mask? If I’m not is someone going to have an issue?  That level of what used to be just going down to the park has become something that is creating a lot of anxiety for us. The other thing that I saw last year was for a lot of people they’re sitting with this free floating anxiety, it’s staying with us.

It’s in there and then the other thing was that people really were just kind of like “well I’m just gonna keep working right?” Like, “my morning commute where I took some time and read a book now I’ll just work now right” after work I used to go see friends… well I’m just gonna keep working. So many clients were coming to me from different jobs and walks of life saying “all I do is work I work all day every day,  I work on the weekends”  and “because it’s the only thing that I can do. It’s the thing that I feel like I have control over., there’s very little else I can do so that’s what I’m going to do” and then that coupled with not taking any breaks… I would talk to people and they’d be like “well why would I take a break I’m just going to have to sit in my house” and it’s like well but you wouldn’t be working right?

Even if you were just having a staycation just being away from work for a week or two is really important. So I think we saw that last year. It was building and building and building and building and now here we are in this new year and people have been traveling a little bit more, people have been out doing more, but it’s not quite the same and I think that  if you really take a step back and look at it. It just builds and built and builds and so it’s exhausting. It’s utterly exhausting for everyone. And that’s what people are feeling. That’s that level of exhaustion that people are feeling and and what happens is that because we live in this hashtag hustle culture of you know, being all you can be and I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that right. We really struggle with this idea of what? If you did nothing for a week or two, what if you just relax what if you read a book, what if you did this? What if you did that? Our culture doesn’t appreciate or really value it. Number one saying, “I need help” but also saying “I need space, I need time, I need to do nothing” so you can see how this builds and builds and builds for people to the point of just being so burnt out.

Nicole Booz: Yeah, absolutely Marina and I are huge fans of saying take a break. It’s one of the pillars of the work we do together, and we don’t think people take enough breaks or value rest.

Marina Crouse: Take a break, take a break.

Nicole Booz: As much as they should. There was another episode I think we did last season where one of the quotes we pulled from it was that I said that “I’m so productive because I rest like 80 percent of the time” or something of that and…

Marina Crouse: And I just said I love that for you? yeah.

Nicole Booz: Yeah I don’t know, it’s something that I think we’ve both been thinking about a lot especially coming up into this season where the world is changing and I almost feel more anxious now than I did even at the beginning of the pandemic knowing I guess wasn’t going to happen and now I still don’t know what’s gonna happen. But I also have two young children that make me more nervous about things going on. And yeah I’ve been thinking about how people kind of take “a word of the year” or something like that and honestly I don’t remember what my word of the year was this year, I’m pretty sure I picked one but I don’t know, but I was thinking that for the rest of the year my word should be slow.

Marina Crouse: Oh, I like that. My word is intention. Because Tess when you were describing how everyone has been filling their time and their need for control with work, I was like “that’s me!” I was chatting with a friend last night and he said “oh what have you been up to?” I’ve just been working a ton. All my friends are living far away. So I either socialize with them on the zoom or the iphone (“the” iphone I’m ninety) on facetime, or I work because I like what I do.

Nicole Booz: What else would you do.

Marina Crouse: Yeah, and all my hobbies are now very similar to my work anyway. But it reminds me of the word intention was so that I would act with intention and not just like mindlessly work all the time which bringing myself back to that remembering I need to take more breaks. But yeah, it’s just the burnout is real and oh I was just gonna say and it’s almost like until now it’s almost become like  a trophy or like a like a badge of honor where it’s like oh I’m just so burnt out I’m just working so much like we shouldn’t be proud of that…we shouldn’t feel good about that.

Tess Brigham:, Ah, yeah, but we do right? Our culture really does that right? There’s this idea of you have to be so burned out and near to the point of being admitted to the hospital in order to rest, right? We have this real idea that that unless you’re working 18 hours a day or unless you’ve just produced this big amazing thing that you don’t get to rest. And what I just think is so interesting about technology and how it’s changed our lives is just how right all these things that used to take a long time are so quick. Now  everything is so quick and it’s even right when we even when we text someone if they don’t text us back quickly, we’re like well “what’s wrong with them?

Because we have these expectations in people to always be on and constantly they know that our phone is near us. So if we don’t text back then there is some reason why or we’re not you know, being as responsive and it’s when you’re talking, Nicole, about this idea of the word “slow.” It goes against this grain of the standard of how we interact with each other the standard of how we think should things should be the expectations that we have for things. I mean God forbid right? Like if you’re trying to pull up a show on Netflix and it doesn’t come up right away, I’m sitting there going “come on, come on, come on, come on right right? because it’s too  slow but if we go back to what we’re talking about in terms of social media right?

One of the big myths that I see with young people and is because of social media… because of sort of the the explosion of reality tv and all these reality tv stars and Instagram influencers and people who even in these marketing people that are like I make one hundred thousand dollars a month and I can teach you to and this explosion of these jobs but what’s really missing is this realistic idea of what it takes to build a career what it takes to become really good at what you do. And the thing is is that it takes a long time. It takes many years, some people it doesn’t take that much time some people takes lots of years, but it takes some time to first figure out what kind of work that you really want to do. It takes some time to  really find that niche for yourself that’s right for you.

Then it takes time for you to get really good at what it is that you’re doing, and so what I see a lot with young people is they’re sort of comparing themselves to someone who is an Instagram influencer and making all this money and all of these things. The thing is that in order to really build a career and a career that’s very meaningful and that’s long term, it takes it takes decades and so it’s so funny when you’re talk about this idea of slow that I think that technology and how quickly everything is I think has really created this idea for young people  in the beginning of their career that “oh well I should be really good at this. So this should be a breeze or I should have figured this out already?” And what I really encourage my clients is to give themselves the space and time.

I did not wake up at twenty-two… what I wanted to do is so radically different than what I do today and even when I decided to go and get a master’s degree and and become a therapist I did not start grad school thinking “I’m going to ah be a therapist and a coach I’m going to combine these things together and I’m going to work with young adults. And I’m going to help them do this in this way,” right? I had no idea. All of this process takes so long that it’s really important that that I love the word slow because that’s so critical because it is you do you have to recognize. That to get to a certain point to achieve these things that it is a slow process. It’s all slow but our expectations are so fast that that’s another big disconnect I see with young people.

Nicole Booz: Yeah I completely agree with that, I’m kind of another side to the same coin… I think we all hold ourselves to the standard where we expect to be good at things right away and neglect to let ourselves believe that we can be bad. At things for a while and that maybe we should be bad at things for a while before we get good at them.

Tess Brigham:, and not even bad, but just new right? Like just it just you know, new or, young or whatever. The word is that you want to use? Yes, absolutely.

Nicole Booz: Yeah, yeah, we can be new with it.

Tess Brigham:, because I think that and again I think that that the  movies and Tv and all of that like I always say to my clients. this is why movies and tvs have montages because it’s boring. You know, like nobody…

Nicole Booz:, yeah, yeah, you want to see it in a fifteen second tiktok actually.

Tess Brigham: …wants to see someone paint a house. You want to see the finished product of it. Yes, Yes,  And so it’s the messy middle. It’s the difficult middle. It’s the ups and downs of the middle that aren’t as exciting or glamorous or fun. And they’re not talked about. You don’t see them as much but that is essentially our lives like this is it. This is what’s happening for us and so. That’s when you have to take a step back and say “okay I’ve got to really I’ve got to learn to love the process of it” which is why when I and I was saying that if you’re going through this quarter life crisis to really be able to say to yourself, “Okay, this is what I’m going through” and accept it and be okay with it and say “okay I’m going through this messy time and I’m gonna get out the other side but it’s gonna take some time” just to allow yourself the time and space to do it and to be in it and not worry so much because so often we just want to get through things. We just want to get through this so I can get to the other side and it’s like it doesn’t it doesn’t always work like that and nor should it because it’s these questions that you’re going to ask yourself these larger ideas and questions and all these things that are really going to help you get to where you need to be. And if you don’t take the time to ask yourself those questions you’re not going to get to.. You’re not going to get to the place that you want to be.

Nicole Booz: Exactly, exactly. Well I think that is the perfect place to wrap this up. Thank you so much for being here with us and sharing this story and all of your work and your insights we’re so honored to have you on. So where can people find you?

Tess Brigham: Ah, yeah, so you can go to my website, it’s just tessbrigham.com or tesbrighamcoaching.com, and I have a blog on there. I have lots of free resources on there, and I have  weekly newsletter called Sunday Mornings With Tess. So, just go on my website and sign up for that.

At the beginning of the week I teach a concept and then I give you an action item to do for the week to help you boost your confidence or, a lot of the things that we talked about today manage your anxiety. Whatever it is and yeah and if you’re part of my mailing list I have some programs that I’ve created that are gonna come out in November that I’m really excited about. So if you’re on my mailing list you can stay tuned to hear all about that. 

Nicole Booz: Well thank you so much and we will link all of that in the show notes for everyone. This has been another episode of the GenTwenty podcast. We’ll see you again soon! bye.

About the Author

Nicole Booz

Nicole Booz is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of GenTwenty, GenThirty, and The Capsule Collab. She has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and is the author of The Kidult Handbook (Simon & Schuster May 2018). She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s probably hiking, eating brunch, or planning her next great adventure.

Website: genthirty.com


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