Midlife – crisis or opportunity?

There are constructive ways to come to terms with your mortality.

A man standing on the edge  (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A man standing on the edge
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
George, my first year social work field placement supervisor, was both a great teacher and an interesting person. He was an Irish American, happily married, in his late 40s, and had been in the social work field for about 25 years.
As my year of placement and weekly supervision neared its end, George started to tell me about his secret dream. He loved social work, but he always had the fantasy of owning his own pub and working as the bartender. In retrospect, I realize that this was my introduction to the midlife transition period. George was not depressed, but he wanted to actualize his dream.
By time the summer arrived, he did just that. He quit the field of social work and opened a pub in upstate New York, close to where he and his wife had their vacation home. He in fact reinvented himself.
Psychologist Elliot Jaques (1917-2003) is credited with coining the term “midlife crisis,” referring to a time when adults reckon with their own mortality and their remaining years of productive life.
It usually begins towards the end of their 30s or early 40s through their early 60s.
It is a time when people become acutely aware that they will not l i ve for- ever and may ask themselves “Is that all there is?” or “Am I a failure for not having done this or that?” A midlife crisis could be caused by many factors, including aging itself, or aging in combination with things such as regrets over work, career choice, spousal relationship, maturation of children, empty-nest syndrome, illness or death of parents and more.
For example, some people realize they have been living someone else’s dream, such as becoming a doctor “because my father wanted me to.” Others reach midlife to realize they never paid attention to what their feelings were telling them and that realization makes them depressed and angry. I have treated both women and men who suffered through midlife turmoil.
Depression and anger are characteristic of midlife crisis, as well as other behaviors.
Some passive, quiet people suddenly have outbursts of anger. Some people choose to do something uncharacteristic or extreme, like skydiving or dangerous mountain climbing. I have seen some people completely change their identity.
One person I treated decided to leave his religious lifestyle, left his wife and family, became secular and started to date a very young woman. Many women see midlife as an equalizing moment in their life cycle.
For instance, a submissive woman who let her husband dominate her suddenly pushes back at this pattern and for the first time in her marriage starts to tell her husband what she wants.
Often people in a midlife crisis act impulsively as if they are in a state of panic.
They spin out of control. They panic over the inevitable realization that life is not forever, inducing a feeling of immediacy to change and reinvent themselves. This is an unfortunate reaction, since a midlife crisis can potentially be a very positive turning point in one’s life and a catalyst for productive change.
The Chinese have two words to describe crisis: danger or opportunity. My advice for most of my clients who are going through midlife turmoil is to try to focus on the opportunities that lie ahead. Focusing on this challenging time in life can bring new energies and help to create new ways to look at your future.
This is exactly what George did. He identified what he was feeling, sharing his dreams with his wife.
She was able to come on board with him and become supportive.
Their kids had already grown up and were independent. This is certainly a preferable solution to the “crisis,” rather than going into depression or breaking up a marriage because of panic and fear about getting older. George was open with his feelings, open with his wife, and even open with me, his student.
The way to prevent midlife havoc and turmoil is to be open and talk about your feelings. I would add that midlife is also an important time to get yourself into better shape, lose those extra kilos, eat a better diet and take better care of yourself.
George was a great role model as well as a teacher and supervisor. He showed me that during midlife, if you want, you can turn your life around without tearing down and destroying all of the good things that are working well.
At the end of that summer, George invited my wife and me to visit him and his wife at his home in upstate New York.
They had a beautiful vacation home in the mountains, but the most exciting memory I have of that visit was driving with George to see the new pub. He was truly happy. He asked me to join him for a cold beer from the tap. We did not need to talk. His smile told it all.
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive- behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. www.drmikegropper.weebly.com, drmikegropper@gmail.com