Midlife crisis is a subject of many jokes – a balding man in a red sports car comes to mind. Yet it does not seem funny if we look at the statistics. Research consistently confirms that people in their 40s and 50s are the least happy age group around.
So if you are a forty or fifty something and are feeling unhappy, irritable, “stuck”, depressed – you are not alone.
A large proportion of my clients belong to this age group and the range of problems they bring could be summed up as a “midlife crisis”. Couples struggling to accept the emotional impact of the affair; stressed executives disillusioned in their glittering careers; parents reassessing their marriage after children have left home.
So what are the signs or symptoms that you might be going through this stage? In his book on the subject, psychotherapist Andrew G. Marshall suggests the list of possible behaviours:
- Discontentment or boredom with people or activities that provided fulfilment beforehand
- Feeling restless and wanting to do something completely different with one’s life
- Anxiety about the future
- Questioning decisions made years earlier and the true meaning of life
- Confusion about who one really is or where one’s life is going
- Irritability, unexpected anger
- Persistent sadness
- Increased use of alcohol, drugs, food or other compulsions
- Greatly decreased or increased sexual desire
- Sexual affairs, especially with someone younger
- Greatly decreased or increased ambition
- Fretting about status and the point reached in one’s career
- For women in particular, worrying about not having had children or whether they want them in the future
So what is to be done, if you have suddenly found yourself in this situation, feeling “stuck”, having achieved a lot, but unable to enjoy the fruits of your labour? You might feel you want to do something differently, but not sure what or how.
As one client put it very eloquently: “I have done everything I was meant to do. Now what?”
The first step would be to acknowledge that midlife crisis exists. The Chinese word for “crisis” is made up of two hieroglyphs: danger and opportunity. So it is up to you what you will make of it.
In our 20s and 30s we are programmed to achieve success and build careers (often not in the field we would have chosen ourselves). There is societal pressure to get married, settle down and have children. There are certain milestones to achieve. We are so busy that there is often no time for introspection or questioning if what we are doing is actually what we want to do.
Your 40s and 50s is the time to do just that – pause and think. So far you might have been fulfilling somebody else’s ambitions (most likely your parents) and have not stopped to consider your own. Now it’s your time.
A word of warning. When you will tentatively start asking yourself, what it is that you really want out of life, you might encounter resistance from your own internal voice. It will be telling you that you are wasting your time, that you are just “lazy” or “selfish”, that you should stop daydreaming when there is a million jobs that need doing. In therapy terms, that is your “Adapted Self” coming up against your “Real Self”.
This is where therapy can help. Many of my clients reported that what they really needed is to have some space to take stock of their lives outside their day to day routine. The counselling room could become that safe space, where you know you have an hour of self-reflection and generally focusing on yourself.
With the help of a therapist, you will be able to acknowledge your critical inner voice, but also realise that it is not who you really are, that there is more to you than you know now.
Midlife crisis means that you have a massive task ahead of you – to figure out how you want to live the rest of your life. So don’t let distractions and artificial guilt make you put it off. If you don’t go through this process now, your crisis will come back in 5/10/15 years time. If you ignore it completely it will manifest itself in compulsive behaviors, nervous break downs or somatic illnesses.
Don’t put it off. Midlife crisis is a unique opportunity to make your life really yours.