The Midlife Experience: From Crisis to Transition
The midlife crisis stereotype is something most men want to avoid, but midlife is a notoriously challenging time
Coach Andrew Waddell, who specialises in working with midlife clients, explores how men can embrace a midlife transition instead
We have coaches available to support you here
One of the common behaviours I come across when coaching midlife men is the tendency to view everything in terms of polarities. Most topics are expressed as two extremes, often with the person sitting unfavourably at one end whilst wishing they sat at the other – whether that be introvert/extrovert, failure/success, depressed/thriving or many others. The work we are doing together is to firstly encourage acceptance that there are infinite positions on any polarity, and secondly to define the actual movement (if any) that the person wants to make. When discussing male midlife it is therefore somewhat ironic that I’ll be using a polarity to demonstrate the scale of experience – but it’s a useful starting point!
The polarity of male midlife can be defined with Midlife Crisis at one end and Midlife Transition at the other. The experience of men towards either end of this polarity is very different, as are the issues, goals and motivations that they bring to coaching. In truth, I’m not a fan of the term Midlife Crisis due to its appropriation by western society in mocking terms of male immaturity and testosterone-fuelled profligacy. It’s original conceptualisation by psychoanalyst Elliott Jacques in his paper, Death and the mid-life crisis, was actually connected to our growing awareness of mortality. And whilst the symptoms he describes of ‘promiscuity, a sudden inability to enjoy life, and “compulsive attempts” to remain young’ certainly sound like the secretary-shagging, motorbike-riding, weights-lifting stereotype of the modern male midlife crisis, for me the critical observation is that it comes from a place of fear. It is this fear that is most present in my clients who sit towards this end of the midlife polarity.
The role of fear and anxiety
As we know, the human reaction to fear is fight-or-flight, and both are equally present in my coaching clients. The flight is seen often in an avoidance of connecting the past to the present, and a denial with their true nature and needs. It can also manifest as a literal removal of self from others – a sense of not being present, whether with family, friends, on holiday or at work. A few years ago, I shared a filmed conversation between my wife, Thalia and myself where I asked the question: “What was your experience of living with me, a man struggling in midlife?” Her response was immediate: “Like you weren’t really here.”
The fight is often present in external relationships where frustration and anger become prevalent and seemingly uncontrollable for the individual. Blame and guilt are found in equal measure, especially in the area of fatherhood, where their ideals of the nurturing, engaged ‘mentor’ to their children actually shows up as the short-tempered, distracted dad – or the ‘Just a Minute Dad' as a number of clients have self-described. The fight also appears in rage towards the fairness of life, often represented by their bosses or employers, and the sense of having been trapped by society and social media’s promise of success and fulfilment. It is a place of paralysis, lack of analysis and resistance to engaging with deeper emotions.
Coaching in midlife
The coaching work tends to focus on helping them achieve a better understanding of self through the exploration of values, universal drivers, and family/sibling frameworks – or as I term one of the exercises: "I was the child who… ; I am the man who…" For many men, this work is profoundly challenging and deeply affecting. The realisation of why they behave in certain ways, why specific situations trigger specific feelings, and how those feelings result in repeated actions and outcomes – this exploration of who and why they are the man they are is often the first time they have dedicated any time or thought to it. And crucially it allows them to make the transition to looking forwards with understanding and meaning.
Embracing a midlife transition
At the other end of our midlife polarity lies the Midlife Transition. Far from being a place of fear, the men who come to coaching from this mindset see opportunity and self-realisation. They are truly pausing atop the midlife mountain to take in the view of their accomplishments and experiences in order to ensure the second half of their lives is one of purpose and fulfilment.
To quote Erik Erikson, they are entering a life stage of generativity encompassing ‘procreativity, productivity and creativity’ through the generation of ‘new beings, new products and new ideas’. Many of my clients in this mindset have already made significant changes in their lives, often having left large corporate organisations to set up their own businesses. They see coaching and the engagement with their values and beliefs as a way of ensuring the legacy of what they are creating. By legacy, I am referring to the element of generativity which is about future generations rather than self-creating something of societal value, with purpose at its heart.
The work here is often about finding a deeper articulation of the values they feel are important. A desire to create something different – better – than they have previously experienced. This codification of values into behaviours and actions is focused on both their personal lives and their work lives – often with a strong desire to break down the boundary between the two. They are looking to fully take up their authority over their lives, becoming proactive in decision-making from a place of clarity, empathy and inclusion, for their families and work colleagues. Much focus is on their use of time – again not from a place of fear, of ‘time ticking away’ – but from a positive place of time as an asset, enabling their ability to be fully present and purposeful. Many express an anxiety over their ability to avoid old patterns of behaviour or ways of working hence their determination to be more conscious and deliberate in their decisions.
Whichever end of the midlife polarity we are at, or more likely somewhere in between, there is no one symptom that demonstrates the scale of our experience. For most people it is a profound time of life as we recognise our own mortality – a time for reflection and change. A time when we often can’t see the way forward or fear our ability to hold a new course and require the support and ‘space’ of coaching to navigate our lives with confidence and purpose.