Tackling the Taboo of Midlife Crisis

Psychologist Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” back in 1965, describing it as a time when adults grapple with the emotional turmoil associated with an unavoidable understanding of a finite number of years left for not only professional productivity, but also for simply living.  Though certainly not funny, his research and concept have become rich fodder for stories, movies and modern-day memes.  Think balding man with a shiny bright red sports car or new “trophy wife.”  Think woman undergoing plastic surgery or acquiring a new younger lover.  The reality is midlife can be a rocky time for many.  But – and this is my reason for so passionately pursuing this topic – this period of midlife is also a time full of opportunities for personal growth and increased happiness.  Taking the shroud of humor and the cloak of dread off the topic of midlife crisis, we can begin to see this time of life as the opportunity it really is.

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Midlife Traditionally Defined

Merriam Webster defines “midlife crisis” as “a period of emotional turmoil in middle age characterized especially by a strong desire for change.” Psychology Today has this to say: “Midlife is the central period of a person’s life, spanning from approximately age 40 to age 65. It can be a stressful time, as many people come to feel discontented and restless as they struggle with aging, mortality, and holding onto a sense of purpose.”  Though the reality is that a midlife crisis can happen at any age, it more often happens at midlife because this is such a time of significant change.  Most agree the wide borders of midlife are the years between 35 to 65, with 45 to 55 being a common peak.  This age bracket includes a lot of us.  It’s a big chunk of the average lifetime.  Surprisingly, though it is such a large number of years, midlife has been the least studied stage of life in the field of sociology, the field of science that studies society, social institutions, and social relationships.

Psychosocial Development in Midlife

The renowned ego psychologist Erik Erikson pioneered research into psychosocial development, positing that a human’s personality developed through a progressive series of eight stages all heavily influenced by social interactions and relationships.  Middle Adulthood is stage seven of Erikson’s theory.  He contended that between the ages of 40 and 65 psychosocial development involves a conflict between generativity and stagnation, with generativity being defined as “a concern for people besides self and family that usually develops during middle age.”  And, stagnation being “a state where one limits their involvement with the world around them.”

The Modern Midlife

The stereotypical modern midlife makes sense with Erikson’s theory. We can easily make the case for the societal influences: bread winner, achievement, having influence, making a name, etc.  And the case for the personal relationships is there, too: marriages, children, peer expectations, professional relationships.  Midlife is most often when children leave the home.  It is usually when a professional finds they’ve invested at least a decade pursuing success in a given field.  For many, this is a time when one faces the death of a parent, or at least a notable decline in their parent’s health.  Financial challenges during these years are also common – paying for a child’s college and getting serious about saving for retirement being two of the top drivers for many.  So, we find a convergence of emotional, professional and personal stressors, or at least influences.

The Meaning of Crisis

To pull loose the taboo of the midlife crisis, let’s consider the etymology of the word “crisis.”  Though it seems in more modern times, the word has meandered towards a more negative slant, crisis literally means a turning point.  A “decisive moment” and a “crucial time” in which “decisive change is impending.”  Crisis comes from Greek word “krisis” with early definitions being “a separating, power of distinguishing, decision, choice, election, judgment, dispute.”  Judgment.  Dispute.  Sounds like some thorough analysis, no doubt. Power? Choice?  Decision? Sure doesn’t feel victim-like or otherwise oppressive to me.

Taking Stock of Our Values 

So where to start with the analysis and decisions?  Answer: our personal values.  Personal values can be defined as the principles you live by. They are guided early on by your parents and other significant persons of authority in your life, and then influenced by your life experiences.  By midlife, we’ve experienced quite a lot that has shaped our personal values.  A key ingredient to greater self-awareness is a keen understanding of our values.  Values motivate us. They are what we filter our important choices through.  They guide our decisions and, if we look closely, are at the core of our behaviors and our feelings.

In a formal values assessment, you are given a long list of values to read through with the task of identifying your top values.  It’s a great way to gain clarity on your own personal values.  These are things we may know at our core, but quite often we are blind to the significance of the influence our values have on our life.

I’ll share some examples of values here, as defined by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC), to get you thinking:

Accomplishment: Knowing you’ve done well.

Adventure:  Doing things that involve risk and excitement.

Cooperation: Living/working in harmony with others.

Fast Pace: Always being on the go; high activity, work done rapidly.

Intellectual Stimulation: Doing things that require thought and reasoning

Power: Having influence and the ability to act on it.

Security: Being free from concern for loss of resources, being certain of something.

Variety: Not always doing the same thing.

I like the way the iPEC discusses the impact of values: “…when things are going well, your values are being honored. When things are not going so well, a value or more than one value is being challenged.”  Really exploring our personal values at midlife is one of the best ways to navigate what we’ve come to know as the “midlife crisis.”  Two things are likely at midlife – some of our values have shifted, perhaps even dramatically, and major shifts have occurred in our personal lives – children have grown up and (hopefully) rely on us less, new professional responsibilities or challenges have emerged and we may have more years behind us than ahead of us.  At midlife, we’ll be filtering all of this change through our sieve of values.  Are we making choices in line with our values?  Are we engaging in activities that support our values?

Actively Pursuing the New

I believe the pursuit of joy within the framework of your personal values leads to greater happiness.  At midlife you might find that the children that brought you the most joy are now heading off to college.  You might realize the work you have been doing no longer brings you joy, or that you have been doing it simply to bring joy to someone else.  At midlife you may reach a level of maturity that uncovers the fact that what has been lacking in your life is joy.

It is important to note that midlife shifts aren’t always seismic, in fact they often aren’t. I love the idea of “midlife malaise” that businesswoman and speaker Patricia Katz presents in this TedTalk titled “Light a spark: navigating the mid-life malaise.”  It is definitely worth the 17 minute watch.  In a nutshell, Katz speaks of a subtle feeling of being uninspired at midlife.  She explains this is a time in life when we shift from pursuing the answer of the childhood question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to starting down the path of answering, “How do I want to grow old?”  In Katz’s opinion, at this juncture we can either become resigned to our trajectory (I’ll plot on until retirement and then take it easy), or we can take a path of detonation (Out with the old, in with the new and to heck with the collateral damage), OR we can become explorers of our continued destiny.

A Journey of Self-Exploration

This process of exploration ties in with the taking stock of our values.  And, it involves going deep and getting serious about what fulfills us.  It includes looking back at what has interested us in the past.  It involves reflecting on what we are naturally good at.  And, yes, it involves listening to that inner voice.  Katz encourages us to “gather up kindling to start a fire.”  By kindling she means identifying those things that bring us joy and passion and motivation and curiosity.  She suggests jotting them down.  Really looking into them.  Then, she says, we should begin to pursue them and see where it leads.  This process takes time.  This process is often one we undertake in addition to our day-to-day responsibilities.  To be successful, it should be done with purpose.  What if you set aside 10 minutes a day journaling your kindling, things that bring you joy and passion?  What if you were purposeful in creating discussions around your kindling with your close friends?  Your spouse?  There’s real power in getting the words out. You’ll find momentum in stating internal desires.

The Rising Tide Raises All Ships

The great thing about embracing the midlife “crisis” is that as you grow your passion it is most certainly going to bleed over into the other areas of your life.  Relationships grow as the independent parties become more whole in and of themselves.  Children find a deep sense of happiness in the happiness of their parents.  Confidence in a new area breeds confidence in other existing areas of life.  Energy rises.  Optimism grows.  Doors open.  Mindset shifts.

More Than a State of Being

I have had many tell me they believe they will be comfortable just “being” when they hit midlife.  And I agree there is real value in accepting where we are in life, no doubt, but I’d argue these people who are, or anticipate they will be, comfortable with just “being” are really those that have found they are living congruent with their values and are, in fact, actively pursuing their passions with purpose.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help

We should all be aware there truly are some serious conditions that can develop during the life changes that come with midlife, including clinical depression and anxiety.  If you believe you are suffering from depression or anxiety, I encourage you to seek the help of a professional therapist.  And, some of us will benefit from a professionally trained coach to guide us to growth during midlife.  Skilled coaches use proven tools to assist individuals in value assessments and personal goal setting.  Do not underestimate the power of an accountability partner in a journey of personal growth.  And, simply talking openly and honestly about your feelings, including the weighty midlife challenges we all will face, can be immensely rewarding and comforting.

Embrace the Process

A flashy sports car, facelift or a new spouse are not going to be what fulfills you long-term. True, midlife may be the time you can finally afford a luxury you have been eyeing and working towards for years.  If that is the case, go for it.  And, unfortunately some marriages may be in trouble and a midlife awakening can be the right time to invest in and commit to qualified marriage counseling.  But what is going to truly fulfill you is going to be action aligned with your core values.  It is going to involve a sense of purpose and the pull of passion.  I’m not going to close with “your time’s running out” or “throw caution to the wind and finally live.” I, instead, encourage you to step up and embrace what the “midlife crisis” presents to you with curiosity, honesty, caution, purpose and conviction.  Afterall, we’ve got a lot of rich, rewarding living left to do.

Through her work at Brain Basics, Kathy Walter has the privilege of guiding individuals to their full potential. She fosters actionable self-awareness using proven tools including comprehensive values and Emotional Intelligence assessments.  Her personalized coaching techniques have benefited many exploring the opportunities of midlife.  Contact Brain Basics to learn more.