In my last article, I described five commonly held myths about midlife. We now know that we don't all hit midlife and automatically go into a crisis. The "midlife crisis" is not a universal experience. It is an anachronistic cliché, given how much longer we are living and the expectations we have for those latter years. And if some of us go through an existential, self-reflective stage, it doesn't necessarily happen at one particular age. Most importantly, we have learned that when we reach midlife, it doesn't all "go downhill from there."
Part Two continues undoing myths that are commonly believed about this ever-fluctuating phase of life. Keep in mind that our goal is neither to glorify, nor terrify, but rather to be informed and sensible so that we can best plan for the challenges that lie ahead.
Myth #6 - We Yearn To Be Young Again: Actually, as we turn the midlife corner and recognize the importance of making the most of the time we have left, many of us start to relish the here and now more than ever before. Not only do we stop looking in the rear view mirror as often, we also feel less pressure to press down on the gas pedal. No longer are we so focused on climbing professional or social ladders. We get out of races we don't want to be running and begin to feel proud of the accomplishments we have already achieved. We may continue to seek fun and adventure, but when we do, we take more time to listen, taste, smell and enjoy the pleasure these experiences bring. Instead of focusing on yesterday - or tomorrow - our focus often shifts to today.
Myth #7 – We Become Grumpy Old Men (and Women): Moods can flare up as hormones change, but sustained irritability and grumpiness are more often experienced by those whose lives are dissatisfying. Recent studies show that we grow to have increasingly realistic expectations as we age, so that we yearn less for what we don't have and become more content with what we do. After years of trial and error, most mid-lifers recognize that immediate gratification comes at the expense of long-term satisfaction, so we begin to value stability and endurance over impulsiveness and self-indulgence. Some realize that loyalty in relationships is more important than experimenting with new ones. Long-term relationships with mates, bosses, colleagues and friends are viewed as rewarding accomplishments, even if they don't always meet our immediate expectations. As we accept our own limitations - as well as those of others – things that once made us unpredictably moody give way to a deeper and more consistent sense of gratification.
Myth # 8 - Aging Leads to Loneliness: Surprisingly, while most of us fear increasing isolation at midlife, hitting this stage often propels people to reach out and connect (or reconnect) to friends and family. The result? There is potential for less loneliness than anticipated. Even if those bonds have, up until now, been emotionally complicated, we are often more forgiving at this point and accept that everyone has faults. We are more willing to overcome family grudges, especially with our adult children and elderly parents. By midlife, our kids tend to be old enough to appreciate that we did our best and we are mature enough to recognize the efforts made by our own parents. Old friends, neighbors, schoolmates and camp pals are often valued more as we realize we have a shared history. In the past, we may have avoided college reunions or returning to old neighborhoods, but now these events become sources of nostalgia. As our parents pass and children move on, friendships can begin to fill the nest in ways our family once did. With greater freedom to relax, and less interference from the demands of children and work, we can enjoy these relationships more.
Myth # 9 – Being Single at Midlife is Dreadful: Some people dread the notion of being separated, divorced, widowed or never married by the time we hit midlife. Yet once there, many report there are positives about being suddenly single. Sometimes we recognize that the marriages we envied are, in fact, not very satisfying and the families we idealized are more disconnected than we once thought. For those of us in seriously dysfunctional relationships, we may finally have the courage to extract ourselves and enjoy newfound freedoms. We start connecting to others who share similar circumstances, viewing them with admiration rather than sympathy. We stop fighting with ourselves and instead, find more important battles to wage – sometimes joining others in causes that have broader meaning. And while mid-lifers still care about being physically appealing to others, we learn to place more emphasis on other aspects of our identities to fuel our self-esteem. We realize that beauty, love and happiness are based on standards we can set for ourselves, rather than those "ideal" ones set by others. And sometimes that means enjoying being on our own at midlife.
Myth #10 - We Become Closed-Minded at Midlife: Studies show that lifelong experience actually opens people's eyes rather than closes them. Even advertisers, who have long believed marketing to "close-minded mid-lifers" was a waste of money, now view our demographic as their target audience. Not only are there millions of us - often with more disposable income than 20 and 30 year old consumers - we are eager to find new ways to feel vital as we age. When we were younger, we had little by means of comparison, viewing ourselves, primarily through the narrow lens of our family members, peers, neighbors and co-workers. Now, looking back, we realize how little we knew and how limited our small, circumscribed lives had been. As we accumulate years of widening experiences, we open ourselves to new perspectives, understanding our place in history and where we fit in the larger world. This context can provide a greater sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. We become wiser and more thoughtful about our choices, but we also are open to change.
Reality Versus Myth: As we face the truths about midlife, we balance the positives with negatives, optimism with reality and confidence with uncertainty. By applying our wisdom and experience to this phase of life, we are more likely to come through it with joy and appreciation for all that has come before and all that is still to come will come.
Tell us how you view these ‘Myths about Midlife’ or suggest additional ones that you believe to be untrue. We all will benefit from being enlightened about the realities of this stage of life. So share your thoughts.