What is a 'midlife crisis'?
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Claire Pierce, Psychosynthesis Counselling and Therapy, MBACP
3rd January, 2013
What is a ‘midlife crisis’?
It was Carl Jung, a well-known Psychologist who introduced this term to us. It is a time when some individuals start to confront their mortality and sense of identity and start examining their lives. Some may experience a lack of fulfilment. They ask questions like: “Is this it? Is this my life? What choices are left for me? Where am I going? Why have I chosen this work or relationship? I do not like the fact I am getting older.” The crisis can also be triggered by the death of parents, grief, unemployment, the menopause, an unsatisfactory career or children leaving home.
Researchers have found the midlife crisis is often a time for reflection and reassessment. At this stage of life someone may have had an education, enjoyed a successful career, found a partner, had kids and yet feel something is missing. They start to ask profound questions like, “Who am I? What has my life been about?”
The stereotypical image of a man having a midlife crisis is for him to abandon his successful career and family, buy a red sports car or have affairs with women young enough to be his daughter. Women, at this mid-point in their lives, may suddenly become more assertive, take to study, work, politics and travel and abandon domestic bliss in the pursuit of freedom, adventure and exciting new horizons as they seek to fulfil their potential. Men and women both experience the same chaos but they may react in different ways. Men may want to change their career. Both sexes want to find meaning in their lives.
On a superficial level, the sports car may be an attempt to prove virility and an attempt to cling onto youth but at a deeper level it is about seeking a sense of identity, knowing oneself fully and expressing that persona to the world.
Who has them?
It is difficult when it comes to psychology to generalise but I believe many people experience a midlife crisis during their midlife transition when they start to realise their life may be more than halfway over and start to evaluate their own life. They may have regrets, unfulfilled dreams, things that they still want to accomplish. I do not think everybody suffers with symptoms of a midlife crisis.
At what stage of your life might you have one?
A midlife crisis is typically experienced between the ages of 40 to 55.
What are some of the signs?
Life does not work for you anymore. For example, you may no longer like your job, feel bored with people and activities that may have been of interest to you before. You may feel unfulfilled and discontented with your lifestyle or confused about what you’re doing with your life. You may experience a loss of confidence, feel a need for adventure and change, question choices you’ve made in your life and the validity of decisions made years before. In extreme cases, you may experience depression, a sense of meaninglessness.
Other signs are anger at your partner and feeling tied down, being unable to make decisions about where you want to go in your life and the desire for a new, passionate intimate relationship. Sufferers may have a longing to pursue other interests for themselves as their kids have left the nest, to have some ‘me time’.
How could you respond to your partner’s midlife crisis?
Offer your love, support and understanding and encourage them not to make any irrational decisions that they might regret later. Try to listen in a non-judgemental way to their concerns. Whilst it might be very scary for those going though this, with the right professional support you can get through this. If your partner is unable to cope by drawing on their own resources then encourage them to see a qualified Counsellor or Psychotherapist to help them make sense of their feelings and gain a fresh perspective.
If someone you know is depressed, encourage them to go to their GP who will assess their depression and may suggest counselling and, in extreme cases, medication and counselling.
How can Counselling and Psychotherapy help?
Counselling and therapy can be very helpful during midlife crises because it provides an opportunity for the individual to assess their life, look at the past and plan for the future. It can also help them share their feelings because one of the things sufferers find most difficult is not being able to share their true feelings with others.
Some individuals may feel ashamed for experiencing self doubt, negative feelings and for having the midlife crisis. Those who feel ashamed or embarrassed and do not want to share with their loved ones can find that counselling and therapy provide a safe and confidential environment for them to share their concerns with a skilled and caring professional. Counselling and Psychotherapy can also help them think how they can bring more meaning to their life and help them connect to what really matters.
How long will it take for someone to recover?
There is no set period of time - it is highly personal and depends on how an individual experiences midlife crisis. In most cases, you need to allow for six months to one year with a qualified counsellor or psychotherapist. For other people, just eight to twelve sessions will be sufficient to make lasting changes.
Where should people go to if they are suffering from a midlife crisis?
This is a good time to seek professional help from a qualified Counsellor or Psychotherapist who can help support individuals through this period. However, it is important that the Counsellor or Therapist belongs to a recognised professional body and there a number of professional bodies in the UK, two of the largest are:
- UKCP - The United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy and
- BACP - British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Can a midlife crisis be an opportunity for growth, for a new career, for a new start in life?
Yes, definitely! It can be an amazing period of growth where you can examine who you are and consider who you can be. It is significant that the Chinese word for crisis has two meanings: danger and opportunity.
Ask yourself whether you’re going to look at this crisis as a danger or a real opportunity for growth? Some may feel, “I have failed in the past but during this period I can ask myself, ‘Am I more mature, more responsible?’" A new conversation can be had: “Did I learn from my mistakes?”
A midlife crisis holds the potential to be a catalyst for many opportunities - perhaps a new career, a time of cultivating meaning and purpose. It can be an exciting time if we allow it to be, a time of rebirth. You can turn this midlife crisis around into an extraordinary success; it is an opportunity to learn about yourself in a very different way. We suffer a midlife crisis for a purpose: to step into more of who we are and make life more meaningful.
Can you give me some examples of how clients have successfully emerged from a midlife crisis?
Some people change career as a result of counselling. For example, a lawyer who decided to fulfil a long-held ambition and write a novel. Women may choose a career in writing or teaching, decide to study for a degree or sign up for fulfilling voluntary work, allowing them to feel they are contributing more to the community. I have also met people who choose to work in the voluntary, rather than private, sector for this reason. Some people choose to change career altogether - previously unhappy men and women can use it as the impetus to find an occupation that makes their heart sing.
Have there been any unsuccessful results from therapy?
Unless a client chooses to leave therapy prematurely. Getting involved with counselling/therapy enables clients to make better choices so they, and everyone around them, benefits.
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