Mid-life crisis, that’s what men go through in their forties, when they leave their wife and children to hook up with their blond, young bimbo of a secretary, and go cruising down the highway with her in the newly purchased red cabriolet, on the way to a saucy weekend in a seaside resort, isn’t it?
Well, that’s how we often depict mid-life crisis in contemporary Western society at least. But the mid-life crisis is actually something far more important and meaningful than that. Or at least it can be. If we stop dismissing mid-life crisis as a joke, and open our minds to it as an opportunity for growth and self-actualisation.
As we go through life, we all pass through certain developmental stages, one leading to another. One such developmental stage is mid-life, which typically falls somewhere between ages 35 and 65 in present-day Western society. Just like adolescence, mid-life is a normal developmental stage. And just like adolescence, this is a stage where important transitions, identity adjustments, and new self-awareness occur.
If we consider adolescence as the first major identity challenge in life, then mid-life is the second one, and they do have similarities. In both instances the task we are facing is to define to ourselves who we are as individuals, what our own values, likes and dislikes are. In adolescence the individualization involves a separation from our family of origin and a questioning of the values system that we inherited from the family we grew up in. In mid-life the task is about taking stock and questioning the values and ideas that we, often unconsciously, have inherited from the greater society around us.
It is quite common that people go through their 20s and early 30s following a map that has largely been drawn up by others, and striving to conform to handed-down ideas for how life should best be lived; studying, starting a career, marrying, having children etc. All without stopping to consider whether each step along the way is actually a step that they deep down want to take at the given time. Then mid-life comes, with the awareness that the half-way mark has been reached on the journey of life. That youth has long passed, that old age is approaching, and that life has an end that is now beginning to come into sight.
This is when many people begin to question the values they have lived by, what they have accomplished in life, and how that lines up with what they once dreamed of accomplishing. They may begin to ponder more deeply on whether they have reached the fulfilment they had hoped for, what true fulfilment really means, and what they may need to change to reach that fulfilment.
In his essay “The Stages of Life” Carl Jung referred to mid-life as the afternoon of life, noting that “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what in the morning was true will in evening become a lie.” Thus, many people begin to realise at mid-life that they no longer can live by what they once believed to be true.
How this transition, from who they have been to who they are and will be, is handled, may be the greatest determinant for how fulfilling their life ultimately ends up being. For many the transition starts with a crisis…
The term “mid-life crisis” was coined in 1965 by Elliot Jaques, a then relatively unknown Canadian psychoanalyst and organizational consultant, who wrote a paper about mid-life as a period of life when we come face-to-face with our limitations, our restricted possibilities, and our mortality. Interestingly though, and in alignment with Jung’s statement that “the greatest potential for growth and self-realisation exists in the second half of life,” Jaques himself does not appear to have lived his mid-life and beyond with any sense of limitation or restricted possibility. At the time of the publication of his paper, Jaques was 48 years old, and in the 38 years following until his death in 2003 he wrote 12 books and consulted to a vast number of organisations.
A mid-life crisis can be precipitated by any life event, really, but around mid-life is when we start experiencing the deterioration of our bodies and health, the death of friends and acquaintances close to our own age, and perhaps the breakdown of long-term relationships.
In Western culture, youth is often portrayed as the ideal state, and older people are seen as less interesting, attractive, and creative than young people. A youthful appearance is almost hailed as the epitome of attractiveness, and greying hair as its opposite. Certainly, the body in mid-life is different than it was in earlier days; joints stiffen, and eyes lose their ability to focus, but growing older does not necessarily lead to ill health. In fact the majority of people will still continue to be healthy and lead independent lives into old age.
The onset of menopause is one of the signs of mid-life for women, and is traumatic for some, but not for all women. Some women suffer from debilitating hot flushes for years, while others have only minor discomforts. Some women mourn the loss of their fertility, while others feel liberated from the monthly discomforts of their periods. For women who never had children, menopause can cause great anguish about the lost opportunity, and this can sometimes lead to an emotional mid-life crisis.
Similarly for men, mid-life comes with changes that may precipitate a crisis. The male version of menopause is called andropause, and relates to changes in male hormone production. Characteristic medical conditions, such as prostate enlargement, may develop, and sexual function may be compromised. This may cause great concern and drive deep into a man’s sense of masculinity, and can sometimes lead to severe depression.
Mid-life also tends to be risk factor for relationships. Around 30 per cent of marriages break up between the ages of 40 and 60. In many cases the reason is that the couple no longer share the common purpose of bringing up the now grown-up children, but reasons for break-ups are always complex, and no matter what the reasons are, a break-up of a long-term relationship is almost always experienced as a crisis.
Arguably, the most central factor in mid-life crisis is the increased awareness of death. As we grow older, people around us of our own age begin to die. When our parents die, as well as having to cope with the pain of losing them, there is also the realisation that we are in the generation next in line, and we may begin to spend more of our time wondering about existential matters of life and death.
For some people a mid-life crisis occurs out of the blue, perhaps as a sense of restlessness, or feelings of depression and a sense of meaninglessness, in spite of life being generally “good.” An urge to leave everything behind, to find a more fulfilling life may lead someone to leave the security of their job, break family ties and leave their relationship. Sometimes this may simply be a destructive attempt to escape from feelings of anxiety and depression. Other times it may actually be based on a realistic assessment of the life they are living, and a step toward the opportunity of a more rewarding and fulfilling future.
Regardless of whether or not your mid-life comes with a crisis, it is definitely a time where you have the opportunity to make one or several of the most important decisions of your life. Not that there is much reason to wait until mid-life to give some thought to the deeper questions of life, but at mid-life, if you haven’t done it before, it is highly recommended that you “take stock” of your life.
Spend some time reviewing your life so far; what goals and ambitions have you had in the past, how have you managed to reached your goals and ambitions, and what goals and ambitions do you have now, at this stage of your life? If you are really honest with yourself? Are your ideas of fulfilment, and how to achieve it, different today than they were in the past? If you allow yourself to dream, where could you see yourself in another decade or two; with regards to relationship, friendship, work, hobbies etc.? You can expect to still have half of your life ahead of you – what would you really, really want it to be like?
Maybe it is time to look at how you can better look after your health. Physically, by making changes to your nutritional intake, exercise routines, and bad/good habits. And mentally, perhaps by learning to meditate, exercise your brain, read different books, go for nature retreats, or have more bubble baths – why not?
Mid-life may be a time when you find yourself making new friendships, and discarding some old, stagnant ones. A time when you begin to become more discerning with regard to where and with whom you invest your time. And if you have a life partner of similar age, he or she is possibly going through similar challenges as you are. Try to find ways of getting through this stage of life that allow you both to grow and develop, as a couple and as individuals. If possible.
If spiritual seeking has never been part of your life before, or even if it has, mid-life may be the time when you seriously begin to consider the meaning of life and death. This is a natural component of the mid-life stage, and you will most likely find that if you begin to approach such matters in conversations with your close friends, they may also reveal similar ponderings, and you may begin to share more deeply with one another of your experiences, feelings, and dreams.
For many people in mid-life, if not before, it may be extremely valuable to have the help of an experienced counsellor to address some of the difficulties that may be related to their mid-life crisis. Unresolved family issues, childhood traumas, self-esteem problems, and relationship challenges can all be obstacles to finding the peace and harmony that you may be seeking in this phase of self-exploration.
If the idea of counselling does not appeal to you, or if you simply don’t struggle with the kind of difficulties that counselling helps with, you may still want to consider engaging with someone who has professional experience of helping people navigate through the mid-life stage. Preferably someone who can coach you both in regards to emotional, existential, and spiritual matters, to guide you on your journey of transitioning from the life that you know to the life that is still awaiting. So that you can reach the fulfilment that is perhaps still eluding you.
Finally, remember this for the journey;
“The only true measure of success is
the degree of harmonious joy in your life!”