• Midlife can be notoriously challenging for both men and women

  • Counsellor and coach Sandra Hilton reflects on her own experience and how we can shift our perspective to make the most of middle age

  • We have therapists and coaches who specialise in working with the menopause and other transitions – find your therapist here and coach here

There’s a time in our lives when we feel overwhelmed by our hormones. The familiar shape of what we feel to be our “self” is distorted. Sleep is disturbed. Eating is erratic. Our bodies begin to morph into a softer, more pliable version of itself. What once interested us no longer does. Passion fades. Detailed quiet moments become fascinating and eat hours. We examine our being and find shadows of our past selves, woven into our flesh. New form is trying to emerge through us but it is only a draft right now, leaving us with a sense of dread and emptiness.

When we speak of it, often tentatively, or perhaps loudly after a few glasses of wine, we see a knowing look in others’ eyes, followed by a nervous laugh, a guffaw even, and extreme tales of how others have gone a bit mad at this stage. 

You may be reading this and thinking you see this in your teen children, nieces, nephews, friends’ children. All the hallmarks of adolescence. You may be reading this and thinking you see this in yourself. The hallmarks of middle-escence. Middle age. Mid-life crisis as it’s so often referred to.

Adolescence and middle-escence have much in common. A transition where we move from one life stage to another. But the transition is not a given. We may move through it if we complete the developmental tasks at each stage, but we may get stuck, holding on dearly to the paradigms, lifestyle and bodies that we know, egged on by a society that deplores ageing in all its forms and missing the opportunity that presents itself.

Carl Jung first coined the term “second half of life” encompassing middle age and old age. Much of his work focusses on the developmental tasks at this stage to integrate the conscious and unconscious parts of our self. He wrote that “Midlife is the time to let go of an over-dominant ego and contemplate the deeper significance of human existence.” (Collected Works of C.G. Jung). He goes on to say:

“A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning."

How to navigate midlife

But finding that meaning takes work, and a shift in the way we approach this phase. As I celebrate another birthday beginning with a 5, I feel more aware of my age than ever before. I also feel a longing to disrupt the cultural frame and find a more conscious and joyous way of living these years; to embrace the physical, emotional and spiritual possibilities not available to many generations before. If I’d have been born in 1841, I would already be dead (life expectancy in England for women 42.3 years and for men 40.2 years). If I’d have been born in 1920, I’d likely be alive for a further few years (life expectancy for women, 59 and for men, 56). By 2019, life expectancy had increased to 83 for women and 80 for men, but since Covid-19, these numbers have fallen to 82 and 78, which are around the same as the figures a decade ago (according to research by The Kings Fund). So there are whole decades of life and experience that our ancestors didn’t get to enjoy. No wonder these years feel like unchartered territory for many of us.

When writing Flash Count Diary, Darcy Steinke found little human guidance available as she wrestled at mid-life with her own painful menopause. Instead she turned to killer whales for wisdom. Apart from humans, only orcas and pilot whales experience the menopause, and what she found were pods of whales led by powerful post-menopausal matriarchs. She reflects on the difference between the evolution of these mammals and our own evolution in a culture that holds a damning perspective of what the second half of life offers, offering anti-ageing “solutions” at every turn.

Jungian analyst, James Hollis, author of a number of books on the mid-life passage, describes how, in the first half of life, the primary task is a social one. We adapt ourselves in order to survive. We each have our own strategies to deal with life and the people in it – avoidance, compliance or power complexes. Over time, these adaptations become a problem. This is often when people arrive in therapy, wrestling with an adapted pattern that has now become a problem in itself. For example, if someone has grown up in a home with a powerful father, who decides what the family does and how it does it, then that individual is likely to be very compliant. Challenging dad isn’t an option, so the child goes along with everything whether s/he wants to or not. This works well for a while, but as the child grows up, s/he may continue to comply in other relationships and at work, as that is the template they have. They may live a large portion of their lives in this way, marrying and having children of their own. However, over time, they begin to feel empty, like they don’t know what they want for themselves, resentful of doing what others want the whole time and more aware of the cost of this for them. 

But the challenge is, they don’t know any other way. They’ve always complied. To not comply, may feel impossible because compliance is a way of staying safe, of avoiding the thing that this person most fears. Hollis writes that the inner struggle with whatever we are holding at bay, will eventually come at us in the external world, and the task of maturing, is to face into these fears; to risk being that which lies beneath the adaptation strategy and dealing with what that means. The task of the second half of life is to come to know who we are and to create a life of meaning. As Hollis says: “The second half of life isn’t about looking for easy answers, …..It’s about honestly exploring the questions that bring richness and value to your life.”

Changing our perspective on middle age

In order to live the second half of life well requires a shift in both cultural and personal perspective. As we get older in our western culture, we are often marginalised or invisible. The tragedy of care home deaths through the pandemic is a gruesome illustration of this. We may approach these later years with trepidation, often unclear what is required of us and how we might continue to contribute and serve as our ambition morphs into something else. There are no clear roadmaps and few role models for our development in this stage of life, although we clearly need something radically different to that which has got us so far. There is a wonderful book by Angeles Arrien, The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom, which is a soulful and practical resource. She describes eight archetypal passageways through which we must pass. There is a task, a gift, prompts for reflection and practices to facilitate the personal learning at each gate, so that we may grow and deepen our wisdom and engage with this second phase. These practices support the integration of our life experiences to date and enable us to identify the gaps and development still needed.  

My middle-escence feels volatile, often unstable, exciting and terrifying in equal measure. Externally, I notice that I am less visible than I was just a few years ago. My body is changing and I want to wrestle with many of those changes. My daughter is growing and my familiar roles are slipping away. I’m less driven and more content. My ego gets frustrated with this sometimes and resorts to the tried and tested methods of berating me, comparing me, inviting me into competition with others I spy across the social media screen. I’m learning to recognise its frantic, fearful, judging tone and to pause so that I might find other voices in me; or seek out company that will offer another perspective and some heartful resonance to bring me back to this life at this time in this body. I’m happier to reside here. And also more content that not everyone will like me or approve of me, knowing there are enough dear ones to hold a place like home for me. I’m more curious about ways in which I can serve and less worried about getting lost along the way of this journey, figuratively and physically. I’m embracing the turn inwards and the pandemic dates with my unconscious through dream journaling and active imagination process. There’s so much about myself I’m yet to learn, and with that, much about the world.

What I’m most struck by is how much there is to be remembered and learned from that other major transition – adolescence. Then I felt myself become more visible and wanted to disappear. I wrestled then with the bodily changes. There was loss and sadness as I ventured out into the world and left loved ones behind.  The familiar voices in my psyche telling me to behave a certain way in order to fit into the new collective. What allowed me to stay close to myself then is the same as it is now - the music, the dancing, the art, the pull to nature, the creativity fostered through hormonal surges. These are constants through both passages. The ritual accompaniments creating the walls of the crucible in which we might transform as we move through this life.

May your and our journey through each gate be a rich one we share and learn from. 

Sandra Hilton is a verified welldoing.org therapist and coach in London and online 

Further reading

The psychological effects of the menopause

Middle-aged women: ignored or liberated?

The impact of the menopause on relationships

7 ways to make your menopause work for you

How therapy can reveal opportunity in midlife crisis