The Truth of the Midlife Crisis
After practicing medicine across the country, and predominantly in New England, I have stumbled upon a remarkable pattern in the human life cycle.
In our 20’s and 30’s, life seems to be an upward trajectory: education, career, marriage, creating a beautiful home, kids…everything seems to be according to plan.
Then, between the ages of 37 and 45, (I kid you not, it is almost like clockwork) turmoil and trauma hit. These turmoils can be a medial event, a crisis with a child, an infidelity, a job loss, a family conflict or simply a feeling of deep restlessness and emptiness.
This often leads to symptoms of anxiety, anger/rage outbursts, panic attacks, insomnia or depression. It can also trigger an escalation of drinking, partying, shopping, exercising, plastic surgery or having an affair.
After 18 years of practice I would be neglegent if I did not reflect upon this pattern. Over the past few years I have been researching this, and the conclusion I have made is that the “midlife crisis” is quite a natural, and expected biological phenomenon.
Richard Rohr speaks about this in his classic book, “Falling Upwards”. He states there are two natural parts to the human life cycle documented in historical texts throughout the centuries. In the first half, you find your identity, your significance. You are in control, in charge, looking good, building your tower of success -whether that is your physical beauty, social standing in your community or making the Forbes top 100 companies.
However, one can get so addicted to the “First half of life” they start to believe it’s the only game in town. Money, cars, clothes, vacation, private schools, a new home construction – they have a very strong pull on all of us! The truth is that the first half of life cannot last forever – it is not sustainable. The aging process begins, climbing the corporate ladder loses its luster, frantic competition is exhausting, especially against younger men and women…a vague sense of dissatisfaction settles in. These feelings are actually healthy – they do not have to be only scary – and they can guide us to the next chapter in our lives.
I am not discouraging buying a Maserati, a trip to St.Barths, or a new kitchen. But that is outside work — appropriate in the first half of life, but bit by bit, it becomes a letdown in midlife. In fact, our choices utilized in the first half of life were VERY useful in surviving and getting to where we need to be now, but in continuing to use them in later life we will face a diminishing return.
Richard Rohr says it a little more bluntly: People get sick, depressed, unfulfilled, and addicted when they stay stuck in the first half of life work.
I will go one step further from Mr. Rohr and say this “first life/second life” is embedded in our DNA.
I believe this because I have heard my patients describe the uneasy feeling their bodies have at this stage in life again and again and again. This unease seems to be communicating that the way we have been living our lives in our late 30’s/40’s/even 50’s is not serving us any longer.
Thousands of years ago our ancestors had rituals to support these natural arcs of the human life span: rites of passage for young girls/boys to become women/men; men/women transitioning to becoming elders honored for their wisdom. Our modern life has obviously lost this natural pacing.
A strategy in approaching this situation in a graceful dignified manner is to embrace, not deny or fight, the midlife crisis. No matter how much willpower, hard work, psychotropic medication one tries to fight it, one’s dna/body will always win.
What has worked with patients for this issue is first identifying what circumstances bought them to this place: marital discord, denial of emotions, competition, care of others at the expense of one’s self (that is a common one), workaholism, substance abuse, perfectionism, black and white thinking.
The next step is to validate these old coping mechanisms as essential in surviving (even thriving) the first half of life; however, they are not serving the individual any longer. These coping strategies are not bad or good – they are just no longer useful. Like the old skin of a snake – it was protective for a while – but now it is a dead outer shell that needs to be sloughed off.
Following this, the person is challenged to be aware of when they are engaging in old coping strategies and then bring them into therapy. This provides the “meat and potatoes” within which to work with and then develop new, more effective coping skills.
I’d like to emphasize that everyone does this – first half of life (old survival coping strategies)/ second half of life (more mature, effective strategies). None of this is new or unique to our modern world. Greek mythology, Confucious’ philosophy, Biblical scriptures, Budda’s writings, even more recently Carl Jung, Eric Erickson, Gail Sheehy and Wayne Dyer – they all touch upon ways to grapple when you are stuck between outer strivings and inner life.
I encourage you to read Richard Rohr’s works, particularly “Falling Upward”, or any of the writers listed above for more information.
This information and protocol is protected. Trademark in process.
Sarah McAllister, MD
5 Sylvan Road South, Westport, CT 06840