Susie, 42, puts down her mobile and slumps in the chair. Motionless, she stares in to space whispering to her self, ‘I can’t go on. I can’t go on.’
On the surface Susie’s life looks picture perfect with a hard working husband, two healthy children and a career she loves. In her extended family she is referred to as the lucky one. Since her mid thirties increasingly Susie has felt overwhelmed by all the demands on her. And now her husband has rung to say that he has told his best friend, Jack, that he and Susie would love to have a party for his 50th birthday – only about 60 guests.
Much has been written about men and midlife crisis. How many of us realise that women have them too. What’s this crisis all about anyway and how would we know we are having one? And do men and women differ in how they experience midlife?
Take Susie for example. She was raised in the 1960s and, through watching her mother, she learnt that a woman’s role was to create harmony and be there for others. As a young girl she was also rewarded for being quiet, passive and compliant and despite the impact of the women’s movement she is still influenced by this early conditioning. As she increasingly felt dissatisfied with her life she was bewildered. “I was depressed, angry and resentful. Yet when I looked at my life I had all that was meant to make me happy”, she told me.
Then there’s Shane, who also felt dissatisfied as he hurtled towards middle age. Just as he was given his dream promotion he realised he had come to hate his job. “Every day I walked into the office I felt that a part of me was dying. Eventually the anxiety attacks got so strong I wondered if I was literally going to die.”
Shane was raised in the 1950s. Through watching his father he learnt that a man defined himself through his work and that his role was to provide for his family. As a young boy he was also rewarded for being logical, strong, active, decisive, pragmatic and in control, especially of his feelings. “I felt trapped. I had the job and the salary I’d wanted but all I felt was a devastating emptiness inside me. At night I’d just sit and watch television or surf the internet – anything to stop me thinking about my job. I’d then toss and turn in bed all night.”
At midlife our psyche encourages us to start shaping a ‘new self’
The psychological significance of this desire for change at midlife was first explained by Carl Jung, the renowned Swiss psychologist. He said that for healthy development in the first half of life we create a lifestyle and an understanding of who we are based on what parents, other significant adults, our peers, partners and society in general expect of us. As we experience this socialisation we learn that parts of us are not acceptable. These parts we often repress in our unconscious.
Jung went on to say that, for healthy development in the second half of life, we need to create a life based on who we truly are. To do this we need to complete two main developmental tasks for midlife transition. First, we need to find ways to go within to reclaim these repressed parts of ourselves as well as others we have never known; and second, we need to create a lifestyle based on this increased understanding.
It is during our mid to late thirties that our psyche encourages us to start shaping this ‘new self’ often experienced as an inner knowing and turbulent feelings. If we ignore these inner promptings from our psyche, our relationships, work, and mental and physical health suffer. For example, the day after Jack’s party Susie felt numb and could barely move. Finally she acknowledged she needed help. The next week she told me, “It is such a relief to talk about all these conflicting feelings inside me.”
A woman’s midlife crisis is often barely visible
A midlife crisis for a female is typically about choosing to put her needs ahead of others. Conditioned to not rock the boat and to do things quietly, her crisis is often barely visible. She will put up with much discomfort before taking steps that damage her relationship structure. ‘I am learning to assert myself, especially with my family”, Susie related. “I don’t want to be at everybody’s beck and call anymore. Finally I am getting better at saying ‘no’. My husband and mother have the greatest difficulty accepting my new behaviour.”
At midlife men tend to withdraw or act out
By comparison when men experience inner turmoil at midlife they typically either withdraw from family, friends and social life, as Shane did, or act out, with showy and visible behaviours such as affairs, endless acquisition, manic exercise, overwork and other addictions; anything but acknowledge their inner turmoil and reach out for support. At 40 Greg was juggling a successful career involving long absences from his wife and children, a mistress nearly half his age and a gambling addiction. “I’d look at my work, my family, my life, and think: Is this all there is?” It was only after he sought counselling when his second marriage ended in his late 40s that he realised he had been having a prolonged midlife crisis. “I wish I’d sought help earlier”, he says now.
So how would you know if you are experiencing a midlife crisis or already navigating midlife transition? If you are aged between 35 to 50 years and are experiencing uncharacteristic feelings, thoughts and behaviours which may include a sense of a loss of meaning, feelings of being trapped and overburdened by responsibility, depression, boredom, anxiety and dissatisfaction with work, then you are likely to be experiencing a midlife crisis. If you have started to make changes in your life based on an increased understanding of who you are and what is most meaningful to you, then you have started navigating midlife transition.
We all experience midlife in our own unique way
Whether we experience the beginning of midlife transition as a full-blown crisis or more as a gradual change depends on a variety of factors, including perceived flexibility within the present-life situation, personality type, past experiences and life skills. When first receiving messages from our unconscious, some of us make gradual changes from the beginning. Some of us ignore them. If we do ignore these inner promptings, by our early forties the inner tension can become too great, resulting in a midlife crisis. This crisis is a point of choice. It’s as though we are standing over a chasm. One foot is in the first half of our life surrounded by all our conditioned values. The other foot is stepping towards another life full of personal meaning and based around our own true values.
Despite these generalisations being true for many, whether you are a man or a woman, and whether you are about to start, are in the midst of, or have come through this time of midlife transformation, it is important to remember that we are all unique and we will find our own individual way to navigate midlife.
Ten tips for navigating midlife transition
- Take time out every day to reflect on how you feel emotionally and physically.
- When another’s behaviour upsets you ask yourself: “Could this represent an aspect of myself I need to own and balance out?”
- Notice your dreams, daydreams, doodles and drawings – they can be your unconscious speaking to you.
- Have at least one person, other than an immediate family member, you can speak to with ease about your inner world and your life. It may be a friend or a qualified professional.
- Notice your inner thoughts and decide if they help you to create the life you want; if they don’t, challenge them.
- Learn to express your own needs, thoughts and feelings in a way that leaves others free to do the same.
- If you have addictions ask, “What inner pain are they distracting me from?”
- Whom do you admire? Could they represent a projected part of your inner ‘gold’ you need to own?
- When you wake in the middle of the night notice what thought wakes you.
- And most importantly, find simple ways to bring play, passion and joy into your life. What did you love doing when young? What totally absorbs you?
Names in this story have been changed.
Robyn Vickers-Willis, a psychologist, is author of Navigating Midlife: women becoming themselves; Men Navigating Midlife and Navigating the Empty Nest: re-creating relationships. http://www.saxton.com.au/robyn-vickers-willis/
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