Mid-life Crises: Disaster or Turning Point?

By Dr. Keith Witt
December 5, 2016
“Mid-life crisis is what happens when you climb to the top of the ladder and discover it’s against the wrong wall.”Joseph Campbell
The concept of a midlife crisis first appeared in a 1965 article by Elliot Jaques, entitled Death and the Midlife Crisis. He, like the psychoanalytic community, felt that approaching death was more fully realized by adults, potentially provoking depression, panic, and strong impulses to flee, change, or recapture a vision of youth and hope. But while the word “crisis” connotes a negative experience, I believe that mid-life crises can be significant pivot points. You might even call them natural occurrences within the course of an adult life that can lead to genuine growth and deep happiness. The key is how you respond to the crisis.

Always take stressful times seriously

Adult development involves stress, change, and crisis. When this happens in the 40 to 65 age cohort, people often consider, “Am I having a mid-life crisis?” Whether or not midlife crises have statistical validity (research shows anywhere from 10% to 26% of adults have what can be categorized as a crisis), taking a stressful time and using it to reevaluate and refocus on a good life is usually healthy activity. Aging bodies, maxing out on careers, youngest child reaching five, youngest child leaving home, health challenges, a love affair, or a deteriorating relationship have cued midlife crises in clients I’ve worked with over the decades. Taking responsibility for coming up with solutions that serve the highest good is the challenge which, if not met, can lead to catastrophic results. If someone rises and grows through the crisis, life renewal often happens with corresponding joy and purpose. So how do we navigate a mid-life crisis towards something positive?

Yearning for something great or repelled by something yucky

A midlife crisis can arise from all kinds of directions, such as:
  • Yearning for something wonderful like a lover, great job, new lifestyle, buff body, or renewed marriage.
  • Being repelled by some central aspect of your life like work, relationship, your deteriorating body, or bad lifestyle habits.
  • An external crisis like losing a job, a financial catastrophe, getting sick or injured, or a partner leaving or dying.
  • Or any combination of the above.
If you are repelled by a relationship, lifestyle, or job and have strong impulses to flee, it’s worth taking your time to explore what’s going on and what’s possible. Such repulsion often has lots of anger, and anger masks love, affection, and empathy. If you are strongly motivated to start something good (like exercise) or stop something harmful (like drugs, alcohol, bulimia, or a secret affair), it’s good to act immediately, and usually ask for and receive help from friends, family, and professionals.

Midlife crisis is a useful concept in therapy

The concept of midlife crisis is useful in therapy, just as the Enneagram typology system is useful in therapy (we’ll explore the enneagram in future blogs). People relax when they can put their experience in a context that has principles, form, and direction to more or less healthy. This is the heart of Mindfulness—self-observe and other-observe with acceptance and caring intent, and then direct yourself to optimal thoughts, behaviors, relationships, work, and play. Also, almost any crisis is best managed with the help of wise and caring others, and psychotherapy both provides a wise caring others and encourages creating and maintaining healthy social connections. Whatever support you choose when a crisis hits you, the measures of how well you are managing will be whether you gradually feel stronger, wiser, and more beautiful as you negotiate your way through it, and whether trusted others validate the choices you make.
Image Credit: Roof Ladder by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho. Flickr Creative Commons

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