Satya Byock on the Search for Meaning and Stability in Quarterlife

Satya Byock on the Search for Meaning and Stability in Quarterlife

by Lawrence Rubin
Successful psychotherapy with young adults requires an appreciation for the true meaning of balance, according to clinician and author Satya Byock.   
Filed Under: Existential-Humanistic


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The Journey of Quarterlife

Lawrence Rubin: Thanks for joining me, Satya. You're a psychotherapist in private practice and founding director of the Salome Institute of Jungian Studies in Portland, Oregon. Your newly released book, Quarterlife: The Search for Self in Early Adulthood, deals with the developmental and clinical challenges of people in this phase of life. What about this phase of life is important for clinicians to appreciate?
Satya Doyle Byock:
my interest in this time of life coincided with my desire to be a therapist, which is to say when I was in my early 20s
My interest in this time of life coincided with my desire to be a therapist, which is to say when I was in my early 20s. I could not find anything in the psychological literature to help me understand what was happening in my life. Developmental psychology has historically focused on childhood and the teenage years, and then there's a big jump to midlife and the midlife crisis, and increasingly into the older years of adulthood.

But whether you're a clinician or a person going through this time of life, those years of the first part of adulthood are historically synonymous with normalcy. With just being an adult, with just getting your life together and buying a house, getting married, and having kids. And so, it was very disorienting for me to be so confused and to experience anxiety, depression, and existential questions. I truly felt as though there was a vacuum of information that would either help me get oriented or make me feel better. So, my journey really came out of my own anguish in those years, my journey to be a clinician. 
LR: Is there such a thing as “normal” when referring to the quarterlife passage?
what I'm trying to get away from is the idea that there is one single picture of what “normal” looks like in adulthood,
It's a great question. In my book, I lay out two extremely broad types of quarterlifers, who I define as “stability” types and “meaning” types. What I'm trying to get away from is the idea that there is one single picture of what “normal” looks like in adulthood, which is to say that historically, that has primarily emphasized gaining stability. But that’s a very externally oriented goal. And so “normal” quarterlifers have been those who don't cause a fuss in quarterlife, those who are pretty comfortable adhering to economic goals and expectations of dominant culture, as well as to what are considered heteronormative gender roles. The expectations of a man to get a job, or a woman maybe increasingly to have a job and have finished college, but to be moving towards marriage and children.

And for a lot of folks, those normal goals have never worked, and they are increasingly feeling unsafe and uncomfortable. So rather than defining “normal,” I'm trying to define a broad spectrum where we can see our quarterlife clients, and quarterlifers can see themselves so they can better understand how to obtain a sense of balance, and how to get to an experience of wholeness in quarterlife, versus trying to be normal and just adhere to social expectations.
LR: “Normal” is such a moving target. Is it possible that a client could arrive at quarterlife stable, ducks in a row — house, job, relationships — but still be hurting because the meaning part is not yet in place?
SB: Absolutely, that's what I talk about in my book. The stability types may feel quite secure in the external world and in doing what society has asked of them, but at some point, they are going to ask, what else is there? Is this all there is? And theirs becomes the search for meaning in some way. Of course, that shows up differently for every individual, but that inner longing for something more tends to come for all of us.

but the so-called midlife crisis has always really been about people who I refer to as stability types — checking all the boxes, reaching midlife, and then saying, wait a second. is this all there is?
And so, I speak about stability types starting a journey towards meaning, as happening more often in quarterlife than it used to. But the so-called midlife crisis has always really been about people who I refer to as stability types — checking all the boxes, reaching midlife, and then saying, “Wait a second. Is this all there is?”  
LR: Peggy Lee couldn’t have said it better. Some might wonder if dividing quarterlifers into these two camps — stability types and meaning types — might be overly-reductionist. I think society is sort of plagued by binaries, anyway. Are you comfortable with the binary?
SB: Well, no, I'm not comfortable with binary. To write a book and to speak about any kind of theory we need to be as clear cut as we can be, but I try to indicate in the book that while I am doing my best to assert a theory and a system of working with folks — and a system in which quarterlifers can see themselves — I am not trying to introduce a strict binary. That was never the point.

So, I really try to emphasize in the book that the goal is wholeness. The goal is a unification of these opposites. It is a journey towards having stability and meaning. But clinically what frequently happens is that our understanding of quarterlife is reduced to a search for stability. When meaning types walk into our office — and you can see this in other books about this period of life — the focus just gets to be about how to get them stable. How to get them moving towards the normative goals. And very frequently they crumble as a result.

Meanwhile, if those are the goals for clinicians in quarterlife, and a stability type comes in, there's very little to explain what's going on with them, and they frequently leave clinicians’ offices with less understanding or with minimal understanding about why it is that they're suffering, because they “should” have everything and be happy with what they have.

I attempt to bring this spectrum of types into our discussion to say that the more we can locate ourselves on this sliding spectrum, between stability and meaning, the more we can understand what we are longing for, what our shadow is, and what our longings are about, and as a result get oriented.  

Province of the Privileged

LR: I imagine that the quest for stability and/or meaning are neither linear nor sequential. How does this show up in therapy with the quarterlifer?
SB: [editquote:it’s not just that stability is quarterlife and meaning is midlife}That’s exactly right, and so that's the whole discussion, right? That is to say that both of these goals are part of quarterlife. It’s not just that stability is quarterlife and meaning is midlife. That's been the developmental psychological framework; whether we have spoken about it explicitly or not, that's what it's been. What I'm expressing is that the journey of quarterlife is like two strands of DNA; these two elements are what we are trying to weave together all through adulthood. And we need to speak about that up front, and orient quarterlifers to the fact that they are going to have existential questions, especially on a planet with so much overlapping crisis all the time. We can't just keep emphasizing trying to get them back to stability and normalcy. 
LR: With so much of our society in crisis, isn’t the pursuit of meaning the province of the privileged?
SB: No, we all seek meaning. We all seek meaning on this planet, whether you are a quarterlifer in a refugee camp, or a quarterlifer who has inherited millions of dollars. There are questions about why you are alive and in the circumstances you're in that you want answers to. And privilege is absolutely a part of what is possible for those two groups, there is no question about that. And I try to open that up much more in the conclusion of my book where I talk about the systemic issues and social issues that that can make a fulfilling journey of existence nearly impossible for, frankly, billions of quarterlifers. I don't know the literal numbers, but enormous numbers of quarterlifers around the world don't have their basic needs met.

refugees arguably are predominantly made up of quarterlifers — people who are trying to pursue their journey of existence and find a better life, a better adulthood
I don’t think that the search for meaning is something that only exists for the privileged. I think it's actually infantilizing, in the end, for us to say as much, because people in every circumstance want to know how to feel better and have the best, most enriching life they can have. Which is why, in fact, refugees arguably are predominantly made up of quarterlifers — people who are trying to pursue their journey of existence and find a better life, a better adulthood.  
LR: Irrespective of possessions or stability, this reminds me of the work of Viktor Frankl and how nothing is really stable about the life of refugees, of political prisoners, of prisoners and the oppressed or marginalized. 
SB: That's right. Well, they're overlapping — this need for survival, this need for safety and comfort, and this longing for a sense of purpose in the world. If we really see it as the physical needs for safety and comfort, and the emotional and existential and mental needs, they're just overlapping all the time no matter who we are.

Clinical Work with Quarterlifers

LR: Are there particular symptoms or diagnoses that quarterlifers will bring to you? 
we have wanted to reduce the quarterlife population to the complaints of millennials, say, or to social media issues, or to dating, or something
I think like any demographic, quarterlifers come into therapy with a wide, wide range of issues, complaints, and anguish. And so, I'm asked this question a lot, but I struggled to answer it, because I find that we have wanted to reduce the quarterlife population to the complaints of millennials, say, or to social media issues, or to dating, or something, that we want it to be concise. In fact, quarterlifers are having a human journey. And on that journey, there is grief. People lose parents, they’re sorting through adoption issues, they're simultaneously thinking about pregnancy and parenting, they're dating, they're seeking partnership, they're trying to understand their sexuality and sexual orientation, their gender, and they're making sense of their race and ethnicity. Sometimes they're dealing with immigration issues, and on, and on, and on. People, however, may very well call and say, “I’m depressed, and I don't know why. I'm extremely anxious. I'm having panic attacks. I’m having difficulties with my father. I'm having confusion with my mother.” There may be some initial presenting issues, just like any client who walks through the door, but of course we know the story grows from there once they get into our office.

I will also say that most people don't identify as quarterlifers. I'm really trying to introduce this term, because I find the other terms to historically be very pejorative and misleading. The idea is young adulthood versus a stage of adulthood, for instance, in which we need to see a whole person, not just a young person tripping and falling.  
LR: Does your therapeutic approach, technique, or techniques differ if you're working with a client who presents with, say, anxiety, and is really at a deeper level struggling with meaning? Or a client who is depressed and is seemingly struggling with issues of stability? I don't mean to be so reductionist.
stability types often really benefit from a more imaginal body, artistic approach, even though they resist it
Well, yeah, it's a good question. I will say, I think my techniques certainly are, well — let me start over and say — I approach each individual differently, certainly. But if we want to speak about broad strokes, I might say that stability types often really benefit from a more imaginal body, artistic approach, even though they resist it. That's what's in their shadow. That's very often what they are seeking, but don't know how to get there, to a more right-brained approach. And meaning types can very often benefit from a little bit more of the cognitive-behavioral approach, a little more of the left-brain structure.

Neither can be forced on them, and neither can be imposed on them. But while stability types need to deepen into a sense of meaning and kind of a holistic experience of the world, it's helpful for clinicians to give them a taste of what that feels like. And similarly, as meaning types are often kind of floundering with executive functioning and external world stuff, it can be helpful for clinicians to be gently introducing structure in that way within therapy.  
LR: As you were talking, it almost seemed antithetical to me. My first impulse is to think that stability types, as I understand them, would benefit from a more concrete approach, because they're anchored more in the world, in the present, and in the zone of achievement and acquisition. Whereas the meaning types might be ready for or open to more existential, right-brain, artistic, creative. Initially, I think CBT and all that stuff might be more applicable, but you're saying it's the opposite.
SB: Well, it's really a question of what they are missing and where they're headed, right? So, there's no question. I think stability types are much more comfortable with more of a CBT approach, typically, than an imaginal body, art therapy approach. And yet my experience is, they ultimately feel quite unsatisfied if they don't experience in therapy a sense of what it is that they're looking for.

If they come to therapy over a period of four or five weeks and then leave without a feeling of expansion or a feeling of that inner anguish being witnessed and being met, they're unlikely to continue coming back. And so, while they think what they want is structure and just a couple of checklists for what they can do at home, it's not ultimately solving the larger issue. Which is that there's a deep question of dissatisfaction happening in their souls, and that needs to be met. It's not just about typically — I mean, sometimes it is — but often it's not just about anxiety or depression on a surface level.  
LR: In this context, but on a side note, I think we diminish children when we fail to consider that children have existential needs.  
we're born with questions. that's our birthright, and it's sort of irrelevant what age you are, really
No, but that's exactly right. And I would say again, similarly, of people in lower socioeconomic circumstances or people in other parts of the world, it's the same thing. We're born with questions. That's our birthright, and it's sort of irrelevant what age you are, really. But you're absolutely right. We have been discounting that for decades. I mean, we discount that in most decades of life until people reach midlife or the elderly years, when we kind of sanction the search.
LR: I’ll jump from childhood to later life for a moment. I read an essay by social gerontologist William Randall, whose idea is that we can help the elderly by helping them re-narrate their story, rather than one of decrepitude and impending demise, to one of expanding and growing. So right here in the middle is this emerging adulthood.
SB: That’s right. And I will say again, just for the transcript really, I don't use the term “emerging adulthood.” That's a Jeffrey Jensen Arnett term, and I'm trying to get away a little bit from that as well. Because again, I think this isn't so much about emerging anything, as a stage unto itself.
LR: As a quick aside, did the pandemic alter the trajectory of your quarterlife clients in particular ways? Or did you notice how the how the pandemic left its imprint on quarterlifers?
SB: Sure, but again, it wasn't a singular experience. For some of my clients it was a huge blessing, in that for the first time they had adequate unemployment money coming in and weren’t feeling the pressure to hustle from one place to another all day long and feeling exhausted and feeling depleted and depressed. So, some of my clients finally addressed emotional or childhood issues that we couldn't find space for before. Or they were able to deepen into intimate relationships they didn't have space for previously. There were many blessings in that respect. Ironically, of course, the opposite was also true, which is that for many quarterlifers it was extremely isolating. Their symptoms of depression and anxiety increased. It absolutely had an impact, as it did on all our lives, right? But it wasn't a unilateral, monolithic experience. 

The Real is What Works

LR: Nothing is singular and monolithic. It's such a nice fantasy to think that things can be reduced. How does your own approach to therapy jive or not with the predominant contemporary quest for evidence-based treatment?
to quote Carl Jung, the real is what works
You'd have to ask the evidence-based people, I guess. To quote Carl Jung, “the real is what works.” And so, I am working all the time, in every session, to stay present with my clients and be in a deep relationship with them, to understand, is this working? Is what we are doing affecting your life? Is it having a healing effect? Is it having an enlivening effect? And if the answers to both of those questions are “no” or “maybe,” I want to do a deep check-in of what we're doing and how to reorient. Because for me, the real is what works. And that must be on an individual level, not statistically. That's not the work I do.
LR: Can you give me an example from your clinical work?
SB: In other words, what works is what works, you know? And so, for me, it's not the statistics of any given approach, because in any statistical analysis there's people for whom it's not working. And so, as clinicians, our work has to be exceedingly individual, as individual as it gets. So, if my techniques, if my approach is not working for one of my clients, that's an issue. That either means I need to reorient, or I need to refer them to somebody who is going to be able to support them. Because they're not statistics, right? What works is what works, and that's where I try to stay present.
LR: One of my dear friends and mentor used to say, “people are not evidence-based.” 
SB: I'm not a dogmatist. My clients don't have to buy anything. We're working together for their benefit.
LR: Do you use art, and mandalas?
SB: I’m not an art therapist. I have a strong Jungian background. My tool is largely — certainly, my training and my theories are useful — is me. It's my relationship with them, my presence with them, my understanding of them, and then the techniques, whether it's trauma-informed care, dreamwork, or any number of things that we might do together. That's sort of secondary to the deep relationship that we have.
LR: Does the course of your work tend to be longer or shorter?
I am allergic to stagnation
Well, I have a lot of very long-term clients. And for me, again, the goal is always to stay present with whether we are continuing to have value in their lives. I am allergic to stagnation, so if things are stagnant and uncomfortable, I try to adjust that. And if things are stagnant and comfortable, I suggest the possibility of ending our work together, so they can move out into the world and kind of shift our dynamic and relationship. But generally, my work tends to be longer-term than shorter-term. 
LR: Can you give an example of a client where stagnation had entered the therapeutic work, and something you did to “de-stagnate?”
SB: Well, I think there's a lot of ways in which busyness, but also dissociation, trauma, and the freeze state, are reflections of stagnation. There are different ways in which we can kind of get stuck as clients, and that clinicians can inadvertently perceive that as being done with therapy. There are ways in which stagnation and stickiness are defense mechanisms, you know? There are other ways in which stagnation can be manifest in compulsions or addictions, where the clinician is unable to have any kind of effect until the client chooses, really in some significant way, to shift their relationship with that compulsion.

I terminated with clients because I couldn’t find a way to motivate them to battle with those inner demons, at which time it felt like termination was the best intervention I could offer. And there have been other times when clients reached what they were seeking and felt done, and that was a cause for celebration. That felt less like stagnation to me than a genuine completion of therapy.  
LR: A rarity for many therapists, especially when there's issues of insurance and accountability to an external payor. Have you worked with suicidal quarterlifers?
SB: I think most clinicians have suicidal clients at some point or another, and I think there are more of our clients who are suicidal in some respect than we always know. But there's certainly clients who have been hospitalized, or who have been significantly suicidal, who I'm glad to say have felt significantly better and gotten to a place of thriving in my practice. And that's absolutely a goal for me, of course. 
LR: I imagine if a client was acutely suicidal, that might present different challenges for you given your orientation.
SB: Of course, but again, presence, care, relationship, and me modeling that life can be beautiful. all have a significant impact.

Unique Quarterlife Issues

LR: For those folks who are no longer able to see that life is beautiful or meaning is possible, it sounds like you're journeying with them. Have you found unique challenges around gender identity issues in quarterlifers that may be different from gender identity issues in adolescents or later life?
I think gender identity has always been a huge component of the quarterlife years
Well, I don't know that they're different at different stages of life, per se. I mean, I work with quarterlifers. Let me start there. You can scratch the first part. I work with quarterlifers, right? So, I think gender identity has always been a huge component of the quarterlife years, in that we have been historically trained towards extremely heteronormative gender roles in quarterlife, almost specifically. You know, we might jump from gender reveal parties to, okay, now you're a 25-year-old. Are you going to have babies, women? Are you going to get a big important career, men?

In other words, we've been trained towards these gender roles in these adulthood years with remarkable ferocity, and that's what so many quarterlifers are rejecting, and have been rejecting, from Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and the entire feminist movement to a lot of what we're seeing around the exploration of gender and attempting to break out of the gender binary now.

The question for clinicians in these years is to stay really present with that, in an utterly nonjudgmental way in a deeply curious way and invite and encourage our clients to explore whatever they need to explore around gender. Because it's a sticky and complicated issue of self-identity with a lot of social implications.

I have a number of trans clients. I have clients who identify as nonbinary. I have clients for whom gender has never really posed that much of a question, but it might be something we talk about as well. It’s critical and it's an especially important part of the quarterlife years. I will also say, the question of the masculine and feminine is core to Carl Jung's psychology, and that search for wholeness is core to Carl Jung's psychology, and that that really does also inform the stability type versus meaning type spectrum that I lay out in which, on some level, it's also still the question of masculine goals versus feminine goals, in extremely broad terms, but it's a search to have all these things. The extroversion and introversion, the masculine and the feminine, the stability and the meaning.  
LR: And I would imagine that there are trans clients who have made the, if you will, full transition to the gender that they desire and still seek meaning, who still feel perhaps that something is missing.
SB: I would say, of course that the human experience of the search for meaning is endless.
LR: Endless. What are some of the challenges when working with quarterlifers and their elder parents? Have you noticed anything unique or challenging there?
we’re walking, moving, and separating bit by bit from our parents in that way, but that continues in a significant way in quarterlife
Chapter six of my book specifically emphasizes this, although it's part of the entire journey. But I talk about four pillars of growth in quarterlife. These are nonlinear pillars, just like stability types and meaning types are a non-strict binary. But I talk about the first pillar being that of separation, and a very, very significant developmental step of quarterlife — which goes on for frankly decades, but certainly needs to be emphasized in these years — which is understanding who we are as separate from our parents. Both in terms of physical space, financially, but also in terms of values, belief systems, anxiety and depression, all the ways in which we find ourselves tied to our parents. And working on shifting those and separating that sense of self from our parents. It’s a continuation of the work we start when we were toddlers. We’re walking, moving, and separating bit by bit from our parents in that way, but that continues in a significant way in quarterlife.

And I do think clinicians would better serve all our quarterlife clients to understand the nuances of that, because we've really kind of emphasized that separation is a midlife thing. When our parents die, we do these layers of separation. And I think we're all better off the more we're consciously working on doing that decades prior.  
LR: That developmental task of separation appears in the beginning and end of life, both for the quarterlife and their elder parents. What about quarterlifers and their kids? Any unique challenges? 
SB: Well, most quarterlifers don't have adult children. They'd be mid-lifers then. So quarterlifers, historically, barring teenage and child pregnancies, the horror of young pregnancies — most parents are quarterlifers. Most are parents of young children.

When we talk about young parents, we’re talking about quarterlifers typically. And this is also a core tenet of these years. Often, they have historically really been viewed as the years of reproduction, which is why they became sort of so fixed in notions of just stability and kind of biological requirements — marriage, children — that the work of quarterlife has really been seen as being parenting. Make money, buy a house, raise the next generation, then search for meaning. That's been the kind of framework.

So, I can't say there's unique challenges for quarterlifers. Again, most people who have kindergarteners, fifth graders, or whatnot, are often in their quarterlife years. Less and less, I mean, as parents get older when they first have their first child. But I will also say that a huge challenge for this age group is socioeconomics and utter lack of support for parents and society, that we don't have universal preschool or child income support for low-income parents. There are countless issues quarterlife parents are up against, and many can be solved by a more functional society that cares for its young people.   
LR: Boy, there's a fantasy if we ever heard one, right? You are drawn to the narrative of Joseph Campbell, the idea of the hero's journey.
SB: Well, it really informs all my work with clients. And again, it’s in the opening of the understanding that each of us as individuals is pursuing our path. Joseph Campbell says, “if there is a path, it is someone else's. If a path already exists, it's not your path.” And so, what I do with clients comes back to the specificity of it — is a deep listening and a deep witnessing of, what is this person's journey? And so that's – of course, it's also Carl Jung’s understanding of individuation, and most world religions, of the witnessing of the deep questions that we have, but also the deep challenges that we have.

So, I think Campbell's work can often be reduced to kind of a notion of Captain America, or a notion of privilege, and it's never his work. If you go back and listen to him or read his work, that's not his work. His work is about the human spirit and what we're trying to make sense of. It's also very much about the maturation of the human being. And so, what I try to emphasize is that most of Joseph Campbell's work is about the quarterlife years. The mythology of storytelling, these young people who are leaving home to pursue a quest of some kind. They're leaving their parents, they're leaving their young bride, perhaps, but they're quarterlifers. And they're searching for themselves, and they're searching for that shift out of childhood dependence and towards independence. And so, Campbell talks a lot about the hero's journey. Again, it's not about heroics, it's about the maturation of the human being, and how we become ourselves and make a mark on the world in some way.  
LR: And maturation, true and full maturation of the human being, I think, is a heroic journey.
SB: That's exactly what Campbell was saying. It’s exactly that. Regardless of gender.
LR: Regardless of gender. Should I be asking you any other questions, Satya?
SB: I think that's actually a great place to end. I've loved this conversation.
LR: I hope so. I've enjoyed it immensely, too. So, I will say thank you for your time.

© 2023
Satya Doyle Byock Satya Doyle Byock, MA, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice and the author of Quarterlife: The Search for Self in Early Adulthood (Random House, 2022). Satya also teaches online at The Salome Institute of Jungian Psychology, which she founded, and writes “The Quarterlifer” newsletter on Substack:

Instagram: @satyabyock   
Lawrence Rubin Lawrence ‘Larry’ Rubin, PhD, ABPP, is a Florida licensed psychologist, and registered play therapist. He currently teaches in the doctoral program in Psychology at Nova Southeastern University and retired Professor of Counselor Education at St. Thomas University. A board-certified diplomate in clinical child and adolescent psychology, he has published numerous book chapters and edited volumes in psychotherapy and popular culture including the Handbook of Medical Play Therapy and Child Life: Interventions in Clinical and Medical Settings and Diagnosis and Treatment Planning Skills: A Popular Culture Casebook Approach. Larry is the editor at