What is midlife anyway? It is a term that elicits a lot of reactions from people in it, people approaching it and people past it. Midlife has gotten a bad rap. It is actually a misnomer in this day and age. The midlife crisis is a psychological, emotional, spiritual, and cultural phenomenon that hits us around our late thirties to early forties. Many of us, though, are living longer and healthier lives these days well beyond eighty years.
There are certainly aspects to it that are connected to our physiology, especially for women who feel the impact of perimenopause and menopause, but even women who have undergone a hysterectomy at a younger age feel the pull of the “midlife experience” around their early forties.
It often starts with an urge—a feeling that a change is in the offing. Curiosity or concern might pop up as you wonder, “What is going on with me?” You might feel a little scared and maybe a little excited. It causes us to question if we are at the right place in our careers and in our lives; to look to what is next.
S ome women are launched into the experience of midlife as a result of various life passages: becoming an empty-nester, losing a spouse or partner to divorce or death, a career road-block, or maybe the loss of a parent. This will cause some women to feel disconnected and disoriented.
However one arrives at the moment of realization of being at midlife, it is the threshold to a whole different experience of oneself. It is also the point at which we confront the question: “What is my life purpose?” As we mature into the process of sorting out our conflicting desires and impulses, the question becomes a clear voice from the inside seeking clarity about what it is we truly want in our lives; “Am I living the life I truly want to live?” Over time the coping styles and defense mechanisms of our childhood and young adulthood give way to a deeper questioning. There is a truth inside that wants to express itself.
Some people move through this process and come out the other side with a sense of clarity and peace of mind; for others it is a crisis. However, understanding the process can open the door to the excitement of this time of life—a time of re-igniting old passions and accessing new ones. It is a time to explore and reach for big dreams, to respond to the awakening of deep inner wisdom.
Midlife presents cultural challenges in that as we age, we seem to become more invisible. Herein lies a paradox. While a predominant message in our youth-oriented culture may lead us to experience ourselves as more invisible (and perhaps powerless), an inner power is emerging and we see ourselves more clearly than ever. The conscious choice to be present banishes our confusion and releases our energy. When we embrace the freedom to speak and live our true selves it becomes a passionate commitment. I often hear women in their 50s declare they feel this is the most powerful time of their lives.
Midlife draws us into a mystery. If we are willing to enter into that seeming chaos, we are rewarded with fresh, creative energy and spirit. It means being willing to bear the challenge of insight and to confront what is no longer working for us. By coming into the full experience of ourselves, we unburden our souls and clear the way to live on purpose rather than randomly or worse, conditionally—“I will take some time for myself when ______ – fill in the blank.” At this time in our journey, we feel true to ourselves and complete rather than feeling there is something missing. By remembering that we are the owners of our lives, we become powerful beyond measure.
As we let go of what has become familiar and move toward what is to be, we experience both a loss and an incredible craving. We grieve the loss of the patterns and the roles we have had in our lives up to this point, while we long for a new and deeper sense of meaning. This letting go allows the heart, mind and soul to open to new personal and spiritual growth. We discover previously hidden and emerging talents, desires, and confidence. The longings for meaning, integrity, and wholeness are driving forces in midlife. Being present with those driving forces provides a promise of renewed clarity, enthusiasm, and strength.
The recent economy has made it necessary for many of us to delay retirement. As a result, some women have the experience of feeling trapped in their careers. If one is the sole bread-winner, it can forestall retirement long after we imagined would be the case. Even in dual career couples, it can be the same story, especially if there are kids living at home or in college.
Many women who have made their careers in the corporate setting are finding they hit a wall in their lives where they confront feeling unfulfilled. For some, this is a time for reassessment that involves a re-tooling of their career goals and a move to some position higher up the ladder or to a career shift. For others, it is a realization that fulfillment is not to be found in the corporate setting and peace of mind involves a journey out the door to something else.
Some extremely talented and successful women find themselves burned out and miserable. The frustration in many cases has little connection to a glass ceiling and involves a soul-searching born of angst and the unexpressed self. There is a desire for freedom and the opportunity to do something that relates to a sense of purpose and meaning that they are not finding in the corporate setting.
This desire for a mid-course correction causes many women who leave the corporate scene to start their own business. They want to run their own show and see that their time, energy and leadership is going into something they have personally created. Women entrepreneurs who already run their own successful businesses may wonder if it is time to move the business in another direction or sell it altogether. Other women seek to contribute in the non-profit sector and find meaning in contributing to the larger good in that way. In any event, we seem to feel that something needs to change.
But let’s get back to the moment that creates the urge in the first place. Our adult development, while unique to each of us, follows a fairly predictable, if non-linear, path. Many psychologists view the midlife developmental stages as the most significant time in our lives. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, viewed midlife as the time of individuation, when we evolve into the whole being of our true self. And indeed, one of the major developmental tasks of midlife is facing the aging process and our own mortality. This can feel like a crisis. Trust me—it resolves and the fear diminishes and what takes its place is that feeling of excitement and renewed investment in life.
As we reach this point, we find ourselves “out of sight of land,” leaving the past behind, but not sure what lies ahead. We are not exactly sure who we are and who we want to be. It is reminiscent of our adolescence when we tried on a bunch of personae to see what they felt like and how others responded to us. The difference here is that we are not very interested in what others think—we are more interested in how it feels to us.
The classic midlife crisis can show up here as we try to hold on to youth while we face the fact that we are mortal. It is this very confrontation with mortality that brings about the desire for purpose and meaning. We want to answer that question about our reason for living with something that makes sense in the larger scheme of things. We want to be creative, to give something to the world and to leave some kind of legacy. We want to express our innermost being in a way that feels deeply fulfilling and unique. We are stepping into our fully realized adult selves. For women, the journey is further complicated by the messages our culture broadcasts about women, youth, and beauty.
For more on this journey, look forward to Part 2 of The Challenges and Rewards of Your Midlife Crisis.