Five Commonly Held Myths About Midlife: Part One

"Aging is brutal," we are told and once we hit our 40s and 50s, we should brace ourselves because "it's all down hill from there." But increasingly we are hearing the opposite message, "Don't worry, 50 is the new 15!" This phase of life can also bring new opportunities, a chance to revitalize, rejuvenate and renew.

While cheerleading about reinvention and renewal no doubt appeals to us more than anticipating decrepitude, both approaches add little to our understanding of what really goes on during this life stage. The truth is, the experience of midlife lies somewhere in between. Being informed and sensible -- neither too pessimistic nor optimistic -- is the best way to plan for the challenges that lie ahead.

So, let's start by separating fact from fiction. Below are five common myths about midlife and the truths that lie behind them. In another post following this one, I'll be adding five more. So stay tuned.

Myth #1 - Midlife is the Midpoint of Our Lives: Most people think of "midlife" as the point between birth and the death. Actually, it is defined as the midpoint between adult life (age 21) and the end of life (which varies from person to person). And as life expectancy shifts forward, so does the midpoint. For example, in the early 1900s when people lived, on average, until age 58, it was placed at about age 30. Now, as we live well into our 80s, it is considered closer to age 50 and moving toward 60. Which means, at our current midlife point, many of us will have 30, 40 or even 50 years ahead of us.

Myth # 2 - Midlife Means Midlife Crisis: Freudian psychologists first coined the term midlife to describe a normal phase of adult development, when people took stock of themselves and struggled with questions about meaning and purpose. It was believed that with necessary adjustments, people could achieve long-term satisfaction before entering the last stage of life, called "late adulthood." It was only later that the term began being attributed to those who panicked as they navigated this rite of passage.  The term "midlife crisis" was fodder for countless films and books: used to describe people who acted impulsively and selfishly, as they feared life passing them by -- the prototypical 40-year-old married man with kids, who runs off with a new girlfriend in his red sports car, or the aging housewife who buys a new wardrobe and sometimes even a new face and the local tennis pro. So whereas "midlife" is actually a normal stage of development, the "midlife crisis" came to be viewed as a pathological one. They are not the same.

Myth #3 - The Midlife Crisis is Universal: When people had only a decade or two to live past middle age, psychologists tended to see more patients who suffered a "midlife crisis." But with so many years now in front of us, fewer people feel as much urgency as they hit their 40s and 50s. Keep in mind too, that the "midlife crisis" is also more common among those who are unhappy with their current lives. Unfulfilled people tend to reflect back and see goals unattained, risks not taken and bucket lists unmet. Confusion, boredom and anger arise. There is often a wish to return to one's youth or do life over again before time runs out. Sometimes it leads to more extreme reactions, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, increased alcohol and drug use, with relief sought through psychotherapy or medication. But is the ‘"midlife crisis" universal? Not really. Many hit their mid-point, focus on lives well spent and look forward to the years ahead.

Myth #4 - The Midlife Crisis is Age Specific:
It is misleading to assume a "crisis of meaning" will occur at one particular point in life. In fact, existential angst can happen at any time. Sometimes people at various ages, for variable reasons (e.g. serious illness, economic failure, loss of a parent or spouse) reflect back on their lives and wonder, "What's next?" And rarely is it as sudden an experience as the "midlife crisis" implies.  Hardly anyone changes overnight -- at midlife or anytime -- even though it is often portrayed that way in the media or even in stories told by friends or family. "Did you hear that Bob picked up and left his family?" Or that, "Nancy quit her job and is traveling the world?" Change and angst at midlife is more often an emotional response to an accumulation of stresses, like an unhappy marriage, job dissatisfaction or financial trouble. And that can occur at any age.


Myth #5 - It All Goes Downhill from Here: Many of us anticipate midlife with trepidation, but studies show that, in fact, there is a U shaped curve when it comes to emotions as we age. Measures of life satisfaction may lower as we head from our 20s toward our 40s and 50s – with the stresses of building careers and raising families -- but they tend to move back up as we head toward our later years. As we recognize that experience has taught us a lot, we seem to calm down. By getting through the good and bad times, we come to realize we have beaten the odds and there is more life to live. Better yet, our needs, desires, likes and dislikes emerge as recognizable patterns so we can make better decisions moving forward. We grow more self-confident, less reactive to others' expectations, and more responsive to our own. Our external lives become more in sync with our internal beliefs. So, we may head downhill for a while, but we actually go back up as we age.

No one ever said aging would be easy -- clearly it challenges us both physically and emotionally. But hitting midlife doesn't necessarily lead to a crisis, nor does it require total reinvention, a new partner, a new job, a new face. Next up -- five more commonly held myths about midlife. I think you'll find the truth behind them helpful in continuing your journey through this next phase of life.
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