I’ve never owned a red sports car. I haven’t begun dressing in an “age inappropriate” style – no skinny jeans or trendy mountain-man beard. And I most certainly haven’t had an affair with a much younger woman.
In other words, I am lucky enough to have avoided a “mid-life crisis,” that moment when otherwise mature people suddenly begin behaving strangely, and sometimes even self-destructively, in response to a genuine sense of psychological disruption and unease.
You know the stereotype: a man, aged somewhere above 40, suddenly starts embarrassing himself with age-inappropriate, even self-destructive behavior. It’s a mid-life crisis, favorite theme for television sitcoms everywhere. It does happen, though it’s not quite as universal as you’d think: one recent study showed that about three quarters (74%) of 40+ year old men surveyed said they had never experienced a crisis.
If most people don’t have a crisis, why is the idea so embedded in our culture? Perhaps because in mid-life virtually everyone goes through an important, and often dramatic, life transition. Although we tend to call everyone from 21-65 an “adult,” we actually go through several stages between adolescence and old age. Mid-life is different than what comes before (and, for that matter, what comes after). And although the stereotype focuses on men, women face a similar transition at this age. As we move past young adulthood, we begin to have thoughts, feelings, and experiences that we’ve never had before. We are changing, growing, becoming something different than we were before. That’s normal, and a good thing – would you really want to be the same person at 50 that you were at 25?
Aging and change
So from a psychological perspective, what’s happening? First, it’s a time when we become aware of our age, and that we’re aging. We’re no longer young, and in this youth-obsessed culture, that feels like a loss; the sports car and too-young paramour are obvious attempts to hang on to youth. Next, ways of being and thinking that used to work for us simply no longer apply. As a young adult, we were concerned with building a career, looking for a partner, perhaps preparing to be a parent. By mid-life, most of us have moved past those issues. We’ve moved from gathering to sowing, thinking less about how to build a life and more about leaving a legacy.
This change is a predictable result of growing older. In mid-life our perspective on time changes: we stop counting up from birth (how much time have I accumulated?) and start counting down to our death (how much time do I have left?). We’re in the second half of our life, and (like the second half of a football game) our focus, strategies, and sense of who we are change in response. This generates a bunch of questions:
- What should I wear? I’m not young enough to dress “hip,” but too young to be fitted for orthopedic shoes.
- Now that my kids have all moved out, what will I do with all the time I used to devote to tending to their daily needs?
- How do I stay connected, or reconnect, with my partner? I’m worried we may be drifting apart, and might have lost the “spark” that once made our relationship so special.
- Will I have enough money to put my kids through college, or to leave to them after I’m gone?
- How long will I keep working? Do I want to keep doing what I’m doing, or something new? Will I be able to retire? Do I even want to retire?
- What will it be like to grow old? My body is starting to change, and that’s frightening.
Each of us will have our own set of questions. When they inevitably arise, we can respond by freaking out and wondering what is wrong with us; in other words, experience a crisis. Or we can choose a more healthy response: Confront these questions and work out answers that are unique and satisfying to us.
Write your own story
One tool I use with my clients who are struggling with this transition is to ask them to think of their lives as a story of change, from youth through old age, and encourage them to see themselves as the authors of that story. This approach can help you understand the meaning of your own past, present, and future: what it looks like and how it feels. Most importantly, if you understand yourself as the author of your life, you understand that you are in control of the narrative: you get to set your goals, determine your responses to events, and write the plot. That’s powerful!
Please note, I’m not suggesting that this transition is easy. Transition equals change, and change is hard. It brings stress, which commonly appears as anxiety or depression. Pay attention to how you feel, and get help if you need it. But remember that the underlying experience of change is normal and desirable.
So when you catch yourself eyeing a little crimson roadster, don’t panic. You’re probably not having a crisis. You’re just having an experience common to nearly everyone around your age: you’re growing, and changing. Embrace it, take control of it, make the most of it.