The Midlife Passage is Rough – despite what anyone says!
I think it’s fair to say that many people feel stuck in the middle of a midlife transition or as it is known more familiarly a midlife crisis. Some people take issue with the use of the word ‘crisis’ saying we need to concentrate on the opportunities presented at midlife – yet in my experience of working with midlife clients for many years, these times are really experienced as an existential crisis or an identity crisis – a troubling time, a depressing time and for many people one of the worst, it not the worst period of their life.
In a midlife crisis, many people are able to function (even if on automatic pilot) but have an overriding sense of stagnation. Many will increase activity to try to quickly get out of the anxious quicksand they find themselves in, – moving house, moving jobs, changing partners – anything to distract and bring out a quick change.
Yet often the opposite action is more productive – waiting, being still, becoming aware of your own needs, watching your energy and vitality rise and fall and in which circumstances this happens – stop forcing activity and wait to see what emerges of interest or necessity from the ground. This ‘waiting’ and observing experience I think is far more difficult than action.
As people wait they enter into the ‘liminal space‘ – the space in-between identities with the old identity no longer fitting and the new one not fully formed. It can be a tense anxious place
Self-preservation is human nature so it makes sense that people jump quickly to re-establish their new identity due to the uncomfortableness of the in-between, the not knowing who they are – anything to firm up the path ahead – but many of these moves are from a position of fear and within a few months/years people find themselves back in the in-between space as relationships and career don’t work out because they jumped too quickly in the first place to position themselves in ‘known’ space and reduce the anxious feeling of not knowing who or what they are.
It’s comforting to have a known title or position -it helps with our identity – I’m a spouse, I’m a marketing consultant, I’m an author, I’m a banker – that’s who I am – phew!
BUT the second half of life is different – you are different.
The secret is this – the first half of life, the movement is very outwards -you fit into a world that already exists, you follow the degree course and get a good job, you finding your interests, your partner, your friends, there’s comfort in this – you meander along a well-trodden, socially acceptable path, more often than not fitting in with social norms – mortgage, partner, career ladder etc.
Many of these outward decisions are based on parental rules, guidance and what authority figures tell you, you ‘should’ do – go to school, take A levels, get this degree, this is a good job, settle down etc etc. Many of these decisions are the decisions of a 16 years old (A level choices and career path) and mid 20 something (partner) and are of course influenced by authority figures, teachers, religious and societal expectations.
BUT, in the second half of life the journey is inward – you need to find a world that fits around you – NOT one that you fit into. You’re a lot older – the decisions of a 40, 50 or 60-year-old person can vary greatly from a 20-something – and yet we continue to follow the paths we set for ourselves all those years ago. Of course, they no longer fit!
People who move suddenly at the midlife stage are in danger of repeating the first half of life all over again, affairs, job switching, second marriages, wanting to settle down again quickly- this is a familiar path, an identity can be established again quickly, there’s a known familiarity to it.
For many though, they can’t go back, life has left them too unhappy, and too exhausted, and they have an inner sense of not wanting to go back and do it all again. They crave something different but are unsure exactly what that looks like – hence the existential crisis.
My advice is – pause. Try hard not to rush this process. A person who has built their life ‘doing’ now has to just ‘be’. Start noticing your energy levels (if you feel you have any left!) see how your body responds to new choices, if your energy rises at the prospect of a new job, hobby, or life then see if that is sustained overnight or throughout the following week.
Allow yourself time, time to stop, time to consider your deeper needs, time to consider how you would like your life now to look, who would be in it, how do you want to spend your time. Try and tolerate the anxiety of not knowing because, if you can, I guarantee over time that wiser more fitting choices and steps will be made that align with your true morals, values, and needs.