What is a rite of passage?
Midlife provides everyone with an opportunity to reflect on life and for many can also be a rite of passage. As we go through life we experience many rites of passage, leaving home, getting our first job, getting married, having children etc, so why should midlife be so different?
A rite of passage is a ceremonial or ritualistic event that marks an individual’s transition from one social or cultural status to another. It is a significant and often formalized way of acknowledging and celebrating a person’s progression from one life stage or role to another.
Rites of passage can be found in various cultures and societies throughout history, and they serve several important functions. These ceremonies typically involve a series of symbolic actions, rituals, or tests that reflect the values, beliefs, and norms of the community. They often include elements such as separation from the previous identity or status, a period of transition or liminality, and finally, incorporation into the new identity or role.
There are typically three stages in a rite of passage:
Separation: This stage involves the individual’s detachment from their previous social role or identity. It can include physical separation from the community, seclusion, or symbolic actions that mark the beginning of the transition. In midlife this can feel as if you are no longer attached to the life you are leading. Many people describe it as going through life on autopilot. Buddhist psychology says attachment is the root cause of suffering and yet attachment is normal and, as human beings, we are built to attach to others. An effective attachment is based on trust, honesty, and security. Our ability to form attachments is influenced by how our parents or primary caregivers responded to us when we were young. Attachments provide people with a base from which to explore the world. In psychology, we often talk about attachments related to people. In the context of the impasse, we are referring to attachments related to beliefs, people, and objects.
Good attachments can generate positive emotions. You might feel attached to your neighbourhood or your country and that can generate a sense of belonging and security. An emotional attachment to a loved one or friend can bring affection and a sense of connection. An attachment to an object such as a family heirloom can bring sentimentality and fond memories. It is only when an attachment becomes obsessive, limiting, or all-consuming that it becomes problematic. So, at this stage of the impasse, we are considering only toxic emotional attachments. These contain a reluctance to let go of a belief, person, or object that has become unhealthy. This type of attachment no longer supports you, as it prevents you from transitioning to a new stage of life. To let go of these toxic attachments is the only way through and out of the impasse and onto the next stage of the midlife transition. So, it is helpful to know to what or to whom you are attached, what that attachment provides for you, and whether it is limiting your potential and positively or negatively impacting your happiness
Liminality: This is the liminal phase, the period “in-between” where the individual is neither fully part of their previous status nor fully integrated into the new one. It is a time of reflection, learning, and transformation, often involving rituals, teachings, or challenges designed to prepare the individual for their new role. We are not built for uncertainty so this stage can be very anxiety provoking as we are betwixt and between identities.
Incorporation and Regeneration: In this final stage, the individual is reintegrated into the community with their new status or identity. They are recognized and accepted in their new role, and they may participate in rituals, ceremonies, or celebrations that affirm their new position and responsibilities. In my book, I call this ‘recalibration’ when slowly a new life is formed and developed.
Rites of passage can occur at various life stages, such as birth, adolescence, marriage, or death. It seems to be particularly prevalent and relevant to midlifers (as if we don’t have enough going on anyway!!) But they can serve to reinforce or reject cultural values, provide a sense of belonging and identity, facilitate the transmission of knowledge and traditions, and mark important transitions in an individual’s life.