Midlife - crisis and opportunity
It is no coincidence that many of us reach a point in life at the halfway mark where we are experiencing a need for change which may find its expression in ‘having a crisis’. The crisis can manifest itself in struggling at work, feeling that we have to leave the relationship we are in, or a general sense that there is more to life and you are missing the boat somehow. Feelings that come with this experience are often related to anxiety, confusion and anger. Thoughts race around leaving you feeling trapped, stuck, unfulfilled and unsatisfied with your current life situation.
The psychosocial model of adulthood developed by the psychologist Eric Erickson provides a useful starting point when thinking about midlife. Erickson divided adulthood into three different life stages; early, mid and late adult life. He maps out the ‘tasks’ that we have to complete at each stage in our adult life. Having focused our young adulthood between the ages of 19-40 on establishing intimate (love) relationships, in midlife (41-55 years) our developmental stage is concerned with being more outward-looking and creating something bigger than ourselves. The task is to look beyond ourselves, to be able to care for others and to leave a legacy. According to Erickson, if this task is not achieved the person will remain self-centred and experience stagnation later in life.
The second half of life is often predominated by a search for meaning. For example, a successful person may wake up one morning with a sense of emptiness, or they may experience a crisis that leaves them wanting for more. Having established themselves in the world in terms of a career or family life and finding their place in society, there is now a shift in focus on integrating aspects of our personality that have been neglected for a long time. According to the analytic psychologist C.G. Jung our socialisation demands a suppression of our instinctive natures in order to live up to social demands and pressures. This repression can result in a general sense of unease or, at the more extreme end, in depression. For many people over the age of 40 the focus then becomes on unraveling and understanding those aspects of themselves that they needed to hide in order to satisfy social demands; for example, in the domain of work or family. From a Jungian perspective the process of individuation, of becoming whole, involves us recognising our internal tensions and conflicts and learning to achieve a balance between them.
Our search for meaning and purpose at the midpoint in life is partly driven by a more heightened sense of our own mortality. We are likely to witness many endings at this stage in our life; our parents are ageing noticeably, or we may have experienced the first loss of a parent; children are growing up and beginning to fly the nest. Our body shows visible signs of the passage of time, like greying hair or lines on our faces. We may feel quite worn out having reached an apex in our profession. A psychologist boldly suggested that we should all start a new career at the age of 50 to regain energy and drive. While this suggestion is not likely to be realistic for most people, the gist of it – to learn something new and to be creative - is helpful in getting us to review life as it has been and to integrate other aspects that generate new meaning and purpose.
Our anxiety about death is inversely proportional to our satisfaction with life; in other words, our fear of death is often about not having lived life to the full. The idea of our life ending becomes infinitely more soothing if we feel that we are doing our best to construct meaning and purpose.
Starting therapy at this stage in your life will allow you to explore what meaning and purpose you want to make of your life and how you may go about making changes that make it more fulfilling. Being more aware of what it is that you have left behind in order to fulfill your social obligations can help you to make informed choices that give your life more balance.
Old blocks will often have to be removed before you can move on in life. In therapy, you will have an opportunity to learn to understand unresolved tasks from earlier life stages that hamper your development. Life stages are progressive and build on each other; if a task from an earlier stage (such as building intimacy in relationship) has not been achieved due to the particular circumstances in the person’s life at that time, it is likely to manifest at a later stage e.g. in the form of a breakdown. Therapists therefore pay attention to earlier life stages, especially in the early building blocks of childhood and adolescence, to establish the point where a crisis in an earlier stage has not been resolved.
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