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Apr 25 2009

What is a Midlife Crisis?

Published by at 3:56 am under Advice

“Midlife crisis” is a phrase made for comedy routines, something women say about men when the guys start acting like teenagers. There is truth in the accusation. At midlife people do go through a change, one as profound as adolescence. They become “Elders,” people with enough adult experience and judgment to become sources of wisdom for the rest of us.

This process of becoming wise is the midlife transformation. Some people make it smoothly and some resist it with all their might. They need wisdom forced upon them. Such people are the ones who have midlife crises.

Do you ask, “Why would anyone resist maturity?” If you can sympathize with people who resist maturity, you can understand the midlife crisis.

When I have resisted maturity it has always been because of my pride. It can be excruciating to see how wrong I have been about certain things. My experiences in this regard are very common.

Fortunately, God (or whatever you want to call the Deep Force Which Shapes Our Lives) wants us to mature and get wise. And to the common, garden variety of person like me, and many of you, there is the Gift of the Midlife Crisis.

If the way of wisdom is humility, the stuff of midlife crises is humiliation having humility forced upon you. As horrible as that is, it’s still better than the alternative.

What is the alternative to maturity? Sometimes, instead of softening, becoming forgiving, becoming charitable, some people at midlife, and beyond, become rigid, bitter, judgmental and unpleasant. There are wines that won’t age, that turn instead to vinegar.

For some, humiliation is a spiritual gift. William Bennett is a famous man. He was Secretary of Education under Ronald Regan. He wrote a best selling book called the Book of Virtues. He set himself up as a powerful and self-righteous critic of other people. Last week, the world came to know that, in secret, the man had an addiction to gambling in Las Vegas and Atlantic city, losing millions of his family’s money in the land of show girls and what he called “sin.” This man who was so fascinated by virtue finally has the chance to about to really learn about it. His pride, we hope, is shattered. This is the gift of his midlife crisis.

A real crisis is serious and scary. A real crisis is a situation from which there is no turning back. The bridges back to “normal” are burned. There is no way to go but on. No matter what, from now on, everything will be different.

For all the bizarre and seemingly self-indulgent ways it manifests, a midlife crisis really is an attack of integrity.

Sometimes people climb the ladder of success only to find that it’s been leaned against the wrong wall. They invest so much of their soul in being good, right, perfect and pleasing according to others that they lose track of what their soul really wants. They live out someone else’s dream instead of their own.

But somewhere inside, buried in their unconscious mind, are the seeds for their own personal happiness.

“I don’t want to live my father’s dream for me. I want to live my own dream.”

“I suddenly realized that this one and only life was the only life I had. I think I was waiting for it to be over so I could live the life I wanted”

“I threw a party to celebrate my 45th birthday and looked around and realized that not a single soul at the party could I count as a real friend. I had to change my life.”

As birthday numbers start to total up, your unlived parts call with greater urgency.

A crisis is a situation in which things are going to be different from now on.

Some midlife crises seem to be started by external circumstances a firing, a promotion, a friend’s untimely death, a near accident, a promotion, an inheritance, or a move.

Just as often a midlife crisis is started by some strange act of personal sabotage an affair, a career meltdown, a divorce, a painful break-up, the eruption of a family feud, an addictive binge, a scandal — some combination of inner ripeness and the right opportunity. One woman said, “ I was an accident waiting to happen.”

Being single at midlife is the aspect of the midlife transformation I study most. I see it unfolding in stages. I believe, if it is managed well, it need not become a crisis. Not all nuclear reactions become bombs; under control, they provide decades of power for whole cities.

To managing your midlife transformation and to keep it from becoming a crisis, you must learn to notice what goes on inside you and work with those processes. You must become thoughtful about your own psychology. For some people, this involves acknowledging that they even have a psychology.

Phase One: Honoring Your Inner Questions.

First there is the Storm Brewing, the gathering ripening. No crisis yet, but it’s coming. In this phase people are confused. Their inner awareness, their subjectivity is disturbed. They are uncomfortable and aren’t yet sure why. They aren’t sure what they want anymore. They are asking themselves disturbing questions. Do I want to stay married? How unhappy am I? Often they don’t want to address those questions until the questions become overwhelming and terrifying and crisis-laden.

Better to take those questions seriously more quickly. Better to ask yourself, “Why I am so upset with my partner? Why do I hate going to work every day? Why am I suddenly needing alcohol or drugs to get through my day?”

Signs of this stage: Discomfort and irritability. Some handle it by hiding; others handle it by reaching out. Better to reach out.

Second stage: Learning to Say No.

The first step in figuring out what you do want is being real clear about what you don’t want. The risk here is to be impetuous and impulsive. If you don’t learn to say a simple, clear, decisive “NO,” then you’ll create a situation that says the “No” for you, a divorce, an accident, a scandal. You’ll do something really stupid.

If you can’t say “No” simply and precisely, you’ll do it impulsively. You’ll burn bridges and create enemies. You’ll do something stupid and regrettable. You’ll create a crisis. If you’re lucky, it will only be a small one.

The alternative for this stage is to get comfortable saying all the little ‘No’s.” For one week, don’t do anything you don’t want to do. Say “no” simply and stick to it. This can be surprisingly difficult, especially in close relationships.

Here’s another trick: For one week ask people for advice and notice when your inner voices scream “NO,” to what they are saying, and then trust your inner voices.

Usually when people bring on a crisis, for all the drama, they also feel relief. Saying a simple “No” is easier.

Third Stage: Learning the strength of a clear and decisive “Maybe.”

Every crisis brings opportunity, options that before were invisible. Sometimes after a huge fight, after a lot of true, but hard things are said, people are more forgiving. The truth does set us free. The third phase of the transformation is the rebuilding.

This is a time for creative work. Now that you know what you don’t want, what is it that you do want? For us ordinary people, visions don’t emerge fully formed. We have to constantly ask ourselves, “Is this what I want? Is this? How could it be better? What could be even better?”

This is the artists sketch book. We are trying out designs for our lives. Single people at midlife do a lot of dating and thinking at this stage. Couples try out different ways of being together. It is a time of experimentation and it has it’s own stresses. But at least the crisis part is over.

At the fourth stage, there is a new stability, the time of authentic commitment, a time of strength and effectiveness. Elderhood. But this is worth a whole article on it’s own. Next time.

-PB

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