What is midlife anyway? It is a term that elicits a lot of reactions from people in it, people approaching it and people past it. Midlife has gotten a bad rap. It is a psychological, emotional, spiritual, and cultural phenomenon that hits us in our late thirties to early forties and lasts until our 60s. However, we commonly think of midlife as being at about 50 - which used to be considered old. We are living longer and healthier lives these days well beyond eighty years and into our 90s. Midlife is the middle third of our lives consisting of five full adult stages of development before we reach what is considered the stages of old age. There are challenging aspects to it that are connected to our physiology, especially for women who feel the impact of perimenopause and menopause which can start as early as late 30s and is usually over in the early 50s. However it is more than that.
It often starts with an urge—a feeling that a change is in the offing. Curiosity or concern might pop up as you wonder, “What is going on with me?” One might feel a little scared and maybe a little excited. It causes us to question if we are at the right place in our careers and in our lives; to look to what is next.
Some women are launched into the experience of midlife as a result of various life passages: becoming an empty-nester, losing a spouse or partner to divorce or death, a career road-block, or maybe the loss of a parent. This will cause some women to feel disconnected and disoriented.
However one arrives at the moment of realization of being at midlife, it is the threshold to a whole different experience of oneself. It is also the point at which we confront the question: “What is my life purpose?” As we mature into the process of sorting out our conflicting desires and impulses, the question becomes a clear voice from the inside seeking clarity about what it is we truly want in our lives; “Am I living the life I truly want to live?” Over time the coping styles and defense mechanisms of our childhood and young adulthood give way to a deeper questioning. There is a truth inside that wants to express itself.
Some women move through this process with little incident and come out the other side with a sense of clarity and peace of mind; for others it is a crisis. However, understanding the process can open the door to the excitement of this time of life—a time of re-igniting old passions and accessing new ones. It is a time to explore and reach for big dreams, to respond to the awakening of deep inner wisdom.
Redefining Cultural Norms
Midlife presents cultural challenges in that as we age, we seem to become more invisible. Herein lies a paradox. While a predominant message in our youth-oriented culture may lead us to experience ourselves as more invisible (and perhaps powerless), an inner power is emerging and we see ourselves more clearly than ever. The conscious choice to be present banishes our confusion and releases our energy. When we embrace the freedom to speak and live our true selves it becomes a passionate commitment. I often hear women in their 50s and 60s declare they feel that this is the most powerful time of their lives.
Midlife draws us into a mystery. If we are willing to enter into that seeming chaos, we are rewarded with fresh, creative energy and spirit. It means being willing to bear the challenge of insight and to confront what is no longer working for us. By coming into the full experience of ourselves, we unburden our souls and clear the way to live on purpose rather than randomly or worse, conditionally—“I will take some time for myself when ______. " Fill in the blank. At this time in our journey, we can feel true to ourselves and complete rather than feeling there is something missing. By remembering that we are the owners of our lives, we become powerful beyond measure.
As we let go of what has become familiar and move toward what is to be, we experience both a loss and an incredible craving. We grieve the loss of the patterns and the roles we have had in our lives up to this point, while we long for and connect with a new and deeper sense of meaning. This letting-go allows the heart, mind and soul to open to new personal and spiritual growth. We discover previously hidden and emerging talents, desires, and confidence. The longings for meaning, integrity, and wholeness are driving forces in midlife. Being present with those driving forces provides a promise of renewed clarity, enthusiasm, and strength.
In an economy that requires dual incomes even without children, women can feel trapped in their careers
The recent economy has made it necessary for many of us to delay retirement. As a result, some women have the experience of feeling trapped in their careers. If one is the sole bread-winner, it can forestall retirement to long after we imagined would be the case. Even in dual career couples, it can be the same story, especially if there are kids living at home or in college. Many women who have made their careers in the corporate setting are finding they hit a wall in their lives where they confront feeling unfulfilled. For some, this is a time for reassessment that involves a re-tooling of their career goals and a move to some position higher up the ladder or to a career shift. For others, it is a realization that fulfillment is not to be found in the corporate setting and peace of mind involves a journey out the door to something else altogether.
Some extremely talented and successful women find themselves burned out and miserable. The frustration in many cases has little connection to a glass ceiling and involves a soul-searching born of angst and the unexpressed self. There is a desire for freedom and the opportunity to do something that relates to their sense of purpose and meaning that they are not finding in the corporate setting. This desire for a mid-course correction causes many women to leave the corporate scene to start their own business. They want to run their own show and see that their time, energy and leadership is going into something they have personally created and have a vision and passion for. Women entrepreneurs who already run their own successful businesses may wonder if it is time to move the business in another direction or sell it altogether. Other women seek to contribute in the non-profit sector and find meaning in contributing to the larger good in that way. In any event, we seem to feel that something needs to change.
Enter the “Midlife Crisis:” Our Second Adolescence
But let’s get back to the moment that creates the urge in the first place. Our adult development, while unique to each of us, follows a fairly predictable, if non-linear, path. Many psychologists view the midlife developmental stages as the most significant time in our lives. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, viewed midlife as the time of profound individuation, when we evolve into the whole being of our true self. And indeed, one of the major developmental tasks of midlife is facing the aging process and our own mortality. This can feel like a crisis. Trust me—it resolves and the fear diminishes. What takes its place is that feeling of excitement and renewed investment in life. Gail Sheehy named this time in our lives “middlescence” in her 1978 book Passages. I love the term and what it conjures.
As we reach this point, we find ourselves “out of sight of land,” leaving the past behind, but not sure what lies ahead. We are not exactly sure who we are and who we want to be. It is reminiscent of our adolescence when we tried on a bunch of personae to see what they felt like and how others responded to us. The difference here is that we are not very interested in what others think—we are more interested in how it feels to us.
The classic midlife crisis can show up here as we try to hold on to youth while we face the fact that we are mortal. It is this very confrontation with mortality that brings about the desire for purpose and meaning. We want to answer that question about our reason for living with something that makes sense in the larger scheme of things. We want to be creative, to give something to the world and to leave some kind of legacy. We want to express our innermost being in a way that feels deeply fulfilling and unique. We are stepping into our fully realized adult selves. For women, the journey is further complicated by the messages our culture broadcasts about women, youth, and beauty.
Feeling Like a Successful Woman Rather than an Old Woman
For many women, midlife is the beginning of feeling irrelevant. Our culture is a youth-oriented, visual, and innovation demanding culture. Even women who have reached the seeming pinnacle of their careers face the question, “Is this all there is?” Women begin to feel old as they notice not being noticed and valued, feel a difference in energy, and view endless media messages about how to look and feel younger. They are concerned with feeling the need to keep up with younger co-workers so as to not be discounted. As elders, we are not valued and revered for wisdom born of life experience and broad institutional knowledge that can be used to create success for a company and to mentor younger women to be great and confident leaders.
Fortunately, women do have more peer support these days. Women are feeling a sense of power about what they have accomplished and a freedom that comes from having proven oneself. There can also be feelings of restlessness that lead to an urge to do something more, something different, something that will leave evidence that you were here and mattered. That legacy may be a line of greeting cards or an international foundation, but it must fulfill the personal and individual desire to contribute in some way.
This experience can create an intense identity crisis for the professional woman. There may not be many people that a successful woman can confide in about her feelings of restlessness, confusion, and invisibility. Corporate and other professional women are in front of bosses, peers, direct reports, customers, or employees. Doubts and desires have to be concealed because they may be seen as weak and/or disengaged. In some cases if a woman finds out her desire to make a move was a passing fancy, a career can be damaged and derailed.
There are important choices to be made and they will be the guiding forces for the rest of your life.
Some women feel a career change is in order and make the mistake of leaving a position or selling a company when it was merely a sabbatical that was needed. Having reached a high level of accomplishment can make admitting a midlife crisis to oneself a daunting task. Finding you have been climbing the wrong ladder is a truth-telling conversation that requires a willingness to explore the unknown.
The challenge of a midlife crisis is to sort out what is going on inside so you can decide what to do on the outside. It is a very individual and personal journey; the opportunity to discover the next successful chapter. This journey can wind through unresolved childhood conflicts, unfulfilled dreams, and tamped-down passions. Add hot flashes to the mix, and you may be on a wild ride.
Midlife is a time of loss. While many people lose parents at a young age, midlife is the typical time for parents to become ill and pass. We may lose family members. We may also lose friends who decide to go off in their own new directions. This, of course, provokes that confrontation with mortality and the possibility of deep sadness, if not outright depression. This can be complicated by the physical, emotional and psychological accompaniments of perimenopause. Failing memory, lack of concentration, migraines, hot flashes, night sweats, crying spells, irritability and rage hardly make a women feel creative and successful.
Along with these symptoms may come feelings of boredom with life, career, friends, or spouse. Many women at this time want nothing more than to move into a cottage by the ocean with a good glass of wine, a good book and their cat or dog. This is a definite “Eat, Pray, Love” moment. There should be a built-in year-off that comes along with a midlife crisis!
Partly because of the realization that there is only so much time in our lives and partly because of the fluctuation of hormones, women can go through this with feelings of deep grief and loss – loss of people in our lives, loss of youth, changes in energy levels, loss of choices no longer possible, and maybe regrets about choices made. Some women find relief with a brief dosing of bio-identical hormones or herbs and a good relationship with an acupuncturist. This is a good time to find a medical menopause specialist. It is also a good time to engage with a coach who understands this time of life and be your guide through this unfamiliar terrain.
In the midst of all of this, there comes a feeling of rebirth. You wake up one morning hungry, maybe ravenous, for something new. An unusual urge has your attention, it invites you, and it compels you! Heading into the unknown is the great adventure of midlife. There is a wonderful mix of feelings such as curiosity, passion, restlessness, ambition, and a bit of fear. While it may feel confusing, it is exciting, because there is a willingness to take that journey into the unknown and paddle your boat to a shore that is just now becoming visible. There are important choices to be made and they will be the guiding forces for the rest of your life. It is an important time to seek support and make this a fruitful experience.
It’s “ME TIME!”
“Me time” is an absolute necessity. You need time to reflect, to listen to your inner voice, to explore your passions and gain clarity about your next steps. Getting together with other women to get support, share insights and develop strategies is important; it is another good way to take that needed “me time.” The relationships you develop in a small group environment can be a gift to you as you go through this self-redefining process.
As women move into and through midlife, we become more aware of the process. The more we avail ourselves of support, the more enlightening the experience is. Understanding what you are going through reduces stress, increases energy, opens your mind to new ways of dealing with your mood and other symptoms, taking purposeful steps toward that something new and can bring levity, harmony, and joy. Ultimately it is an exciting, invigorating and empowering time.
There is so much creative potential in this experience. Women see possibility everywhere and gingerly step out and seek that special something that generates meaning and serves a purpose. It is an exciting time of life and a moment to embrace!
San Francisco Bay Area