This morning I’m thinking about the term “midlife crisis”, both in terms of the ambiguity of the term “midlife”, and, well, I guess, the nature of “crisis”. Since Tuesday mornings often roll around before I’ve actually figured out what the weekly blog topic is going to be, my “creative process”, such as it is, involves sitting down in my independent downtown favourite coffee shop and staring out the big front windows while I reflect on any developing themes from the past or previous weeks while pretending I can absorb scandalous amounts of coffee through osmosis. On a whim, I googled the term “midlife crisis”, in part because of a couple of lingering experiences this past week, in part because, hey, *I’m* fifty and my own life has been something of a challenge for the past five years, many of my friends are sliding slowly into (or through, or just edging out of) this age range, and because it’s Tuesday and I need to write about SOMETHING.
Imagine my surprise when a hefty percentage of the search results come back with variations on the theme of the “myth of midlife crisis”. “Myth??” I thought to myself. “I don’t freaking think so.” [Character point: Our Humble Narrator may be a little tightly-wound and emotionally reactive before she’s had coffee.]
Less surprisingly, it starts to make a kind of sense when I come back to consider the readings from the perspective of last week’s post: it’s all in the definitions of the words we use. For one thing, “midlife” is a VERY broadly-defined age range; while it has settled through common social usage to be “in one’s 40s”, different studies of social mental health and happiness have encompassed participants from their late 20s to their mid-70s:
“More than a quarter said they had experienced a midlife crisis, a term they were free to define for themselves. The average age of crisis was 46. Some said their crisis was because they realized time was slipping away from them. Others blamed it on a divorce. Others said it was prompted by losing a job.
“Most boiled down to ‘something happened that made me re-evalute my life,’ ” Wethington says. “That’s a pretty minimal definition.” She considers herself in the camp of sociologists who believe the midlife crisis is a myth.”
— as reported here.
Sooooo… okay. I’m definitely in the camp that believes, as much from a professional perspective as a personal one, that something(s) happens one day that makes us re-evaluate our lives. For me it was a separation/divorce coupled with struggling through a protracted career transition; for many, it’s the onset of “empty nest syndrome”, or the challenge of confronting own mortality through dealing with aging or dying parents. The definition of “crisis” itself is open to some debate; sometimes it’s the difference between a swift, singular stroke (death, sudden relationship endings, job loss) versus the “death by a thousand cuts” of slow, progressive unhappiness and dissatisfaction that one day simply hits a breaking point. This past week I had two new clients in this latter category that underlined the idea that a singular crisis event and a crisis point are not exactly the same things, but can provoke the same kind of provocative, potentially catastrophic, drive to change SOMETHING.
“Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who among other things coined the phrases “identity crisis” and “generativity.” Erikson described generativity as, “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” Between the ages of 40 to 65, Erikson theorized that we all face the existential question, “Can I make my life count?” and the psychosocial crisis of “generativity vs. stagnation.” “
The kinds of change that we have culturally connected to this notion of the “midlife crisis” encompass a number of different plausible needs: the knee-jerk reaction to getting old, or to not being where our cultural narratives told us we SHOULD be by our mid-40s; the knee-jerk reactions to discovering we did everything we were told we SHOULD do, so why don’t we feel happy? The reaction to having invested 18-22 years in raising children to be independent people, without having invested the same work into our partnered relationships and, in the echoing stillness of that now-empty nest, wondering “Why don’t we ever talk to each other? What do we still have in common? WHO IS THIS STRANGER IN MY BED??” The reaction to struggling to find personal fulfillment through the external validation of work or volunteer or extended family involvements, and confronting dissatisfaction with one or more of those facets suddenly failing us, or the slow recognition that they have NEVER fulfilled us…
The list of agents provocateurs goes on, but the gist is, essentially something points out to us that we’re not where we thought we coulda/shoulda/woulda been by now when we followed the script like we were expected to. The two clients I saw last week who started this train of thought for me were both women in a slightly-later-than-midlife state who were finally dealing with similar issues as they and their partners cruised roughly into retirement–another life state-change that often provokes major adjustments and realizations for many. So we recognize, possibly for the first time, that we’re not happy with where we’re at, and for many who make it into therapy at this stage, it’s the first time they may have given themselves permission to ADMIT aloud that they are not happy. But because our culture is still very much geared toward a capitalist-heavy “pursuit of happiness” mindset in which individual happiness is, paradoxically, both the be all and end all of our existence and yet the thing we are most expected to sacrifice in pursuit of being a Good Partner, Good Family, Good Employee, yadda yadda yadda… we thrash around trying to find a reasonable path out of the conundrum of trying to recognize our own happiness and contentment and peace of mind as distinct from the weight of internalized cultural baggage. This moment of awakening, especially when it provokes a path of awakening change, is what Chogyam Trungpa refers to as “recovering the sanity we are born with”.
Many things happen with clients who are coming to a therapist at this point in their lives. Often, we have to start in the short term with shoring them up in the face of a precipitating crisis event–death, divorce, departures, dissastisfaction. Then we begin the deeper work of making some kind of meaning of the events and their responses, perhaps deconstructing some of their internalized, potentially-inherited narratives and values that have been shaken by these events. This part is like doing a structural assessment on a building after an earthquake: we need to figure out what part of the foundation is still solid, and what parts of the remaining structure need to be replaced with something better-designed to handle what’s happening, or what’s to come. This work is often a split between narrative therapy, and reconstructuring self-identity through deliberate work around identifying and articulating individual needs and wants. We’ll often do some ongoing work around rebuilding self-esteem, especially in situations where the crisis (as a singular event or ongoing progression) has eroded the client’s confidence in Self or personal agency. And above all, we normalize that many of these crises, regardless of when in the life cycle they happen, are GOING TO BE traumatic for many people. Catastrophic adjustments are the ones we never see coming and generally don’t prepare for, assuming we knew HOW to prepare effectively in the first place.
There definitely is a sense of life transitions for many of us, right around now; regardless of how or why we awaken to this sense, and how well we process the sense of urgency that drives that from “awareness” to “crisis” on a seeming-moment’s notice, most of us will face some kind of critical thrashing experience that brings an opportunity to assess and evaluate ourselves. We’re not always going to be receptive to the goad, nor graceful in how we weather the adjustments to come. But there are resources to get us through these changes that can be more helpful than the cliched responses popularized in mass media. Not all of us can afford red sports cars or traipsing off to Thailand to discover ourselves, but there are always ways to connect with support and resources to help steer us through the worst of the thrashing. Self-peace is a worthy goal when we find effective ways of weathering the storms, even if we need a helping hand to get through them.