The age at which the term mid-life applies varies. Let us assume that this stage of life is anywhere from 40–65 years of age. Whatever events have led us here, the questions we may be asking are ‘what is the meaning of life?’, ‘who am I?’, ‘what do I believe in?’ and ‘do I matter?’. Mid-life provides the opportunity to reflect, re-evaluate and understand what we think, how we feel, and consider what we want to do.
What is mid-life?
A happy mid-life depends on our ability to integrate what has gone before. Reflecting on our pasts means getting to grips with how we thought then and what we think now; what we felt back then and what we feel now; how we behaved in the past and how we choose to behave now.
Without the ability to be reflective, we may find ourselves immersed in specific symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, finding ourselves becoming more isolated or attempting to control those around us. Our awareness of such symptoms is the sign that change is possible. It is never too late, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
The mid-life stage is the period where we have the opportunity to look again. What is it we want in life, what are our specific needs and expectations, and how do we want to move into our future? Considering new options will open up the truth about previously held assumptions, assumptions we had felt were fixed and set in stone. The possibilities of new ways of being are exciting as well as daunting. Becoming reflective may highlight our past fixed attitudes, prejudices and judgements. Realising our previously held prejudices can feel humiliating, painful and sad. Our flaws and limitations are all the more evident as we slow down in life and are less distracted by daily routines and punishing schedules. These reflections may bring about the desire to change to become more open-minded and accepting of ourselves and of others.
"The opus consists of three parts: insight, endurance, and action. Psychology is needed only in the first part, but in the second and third parts, moral strength plays the predominant role" - C.G. Jung. Letters. Vol.1, p375.
Our history so far has been ordained through our social, cultural, personal, gendered, religious, political and economic experiences, through which we have constructed our world view. Our family environment was one to be integrated and sometimes survived. Our education shaped and moulded our talents whilst denying us others. Choices and their consequences have not always been as freely chosen as we want to believe. Our personal sense of self was developed in childhood through the expectations and conditions of others. Internalising those expectations as our own, they have continued into our adult lives leading to decades of adult life consumed with distractions and busyness.
The opportunity of the mid-life stage is to look again. Reflecting upon our past choices with compassion and acceptance is the key to finding the new you. Be honest about the choices you now regret, without beating yourself up, accepting you did what you needed to do at the time. Accurately naming what you thought, and how you felt at the time, without denying, justifying, excusing or minimising, requires courage and honesty.
Accurately felt and accepted, we can learn from our emotions. Personal feelings are spontaneous and provide us with information about our environments. All emotions enable us to understand ourselves and to re-decide how we wish to be in relationships with others. Recovering past buried emotions will help us in the present to respond to situations honestly. Emotions represent our ‘energy in motion’. How we interpret the feelings, and the meaning we give to them, predicts how we react or respond.
Repressed emotions lie in wait like a ticking time bomb. Relationships or life events touching your repressed emotions may cause an explosion into anger or rage, or shutdown and withdrawal. Blaming others for how we are reacting is taking the position of the victim and avoiding any self-responsibility (the ability to respond). Becoming aware of past hurts, and processing them by speaking honestly about them, and accurately feeling the repressed emotions of humiliation, shame, pain, anger or fear, is the courage needed to change and become a stronger person.
Moving toward maturity and having the strength to accept the past with self-compassion enables the integration of those personal experiences, thoughts, behaviours and emotions.
The truth will set you free
However, this realisation and the pull toward change and growth will come up against the opposition of the entrenched, acquired personality thus far. This painful clash may feel like you are going ‘crazy’, and it is normal. As Jesus said, ‘unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds’ (John 12:24, Bible, NIV). Dying to your old self and finding the new in you, is your journey now. Dying to your old self is the work of honest exploration and reflection with accurately felt emotions. Just naming the events is not enough. It is important to feel the associated anger, confusion, grief and to name what was lost. The process of integrating the past losses, authentically, is the journey toward becoming the new you.
Mid-life is the time to attend to our individual growth and allow our repressed emotions to be acknowledged and felt. Perhaps this is the moral strength required that Jung referred to. The willingness to find the courage, to be honest, to seek wholeness rather than living with a part of us denied, and to accept ourselves with compassion is the work of personal development and growth. We can examine and ask ‘what did I reject in me in order for me to achieve or fit in?’, ‘what was banned and needed conformity?’, or ‘what did I not appreciate, that I now understand?’. Finally, we may ask ‘Who am I now and who do I want to become?’.