Surviving Midlife Without a Crisis

Michelle Obama joked (or maybe not?) about her new hairdo saying, "This is my midlife crisis!" She explained that she couldn’t buy a sports car, or even think about bungee jumping so adopting bangs was her way of changing things up. Even the First Lady knows that reactions to midlife are complicated and require careful deliberation.

A true midlife crisis hits when overwhelming anxiety about aging combines with a person's biological and psychological changes. While this confluence of events wreaks havoc for some, it need not lead to an emotional meltdown for all. In my previous post, we learned to identify the warning signs that may mean a midlife crisis is headed your way. This article will help you navigate through this time so that you can turn a potential crisis into a positive experience.

Let's start with some basics. We know that at midlife, many of us hit that proverbial fork in the road when we question the life path we are on. For some, the dilemma surrounds a personal relationship: "Is my marriage satisfying enough to last a lifetime?" For others, it's about their career; "If I’ve lost my interest in my work, should I start looking for a new job?" For most, the questions focus on a combination of personal and professional fulfillment -- or the lack of it -- and the changes that need to be made to make the most of the time we have left.

Questions like these can raise deep, existential anxiety. While there are "uh-oh" moments throughout transitions in life -- adolescence, first loves, new jobs, marriage, children -- this one strikes at the core of who we are as human beings. Reckoning with our mortality can feel less like making a new turn, than facing the fact that this may be our last one. With fear, come fight or flight reactions -- our body's instinctive reaction to defend against anxiety. Whether we fight, flee or pause largely determines how well we manage this time in life and head off a crisis.

Consider the following analogy as a way to understand the psychology behind the midlife experience. Picture yourself driving along a familiar road (life) when you unexpectedly run into a confusing traffic circle (anxiety). The circle provides several possible optional paths, but taken by surprise, you think, "uh-oh, which way should I go?"

Here are your options:

  1. You can stop and retrace your steps, returning from where you started.
  2. You can keep going round and round the traffic circle.
  3. You can go straight ahead because it's what you know and it feels safest.
  4. You can take just any turn and hope it works out.
  5. You can pull over to look at a map and think about your options.
  6. You can get out of the car and ask for help.

Now, look at these paths as they relate to midlife choices and their consequences:

1) Fleeing.

You may want to remove yourself from inner midlife turmoil, so you choose to retrace your steps and go back to where you started, just to get out of the confusion. You may be one of those mid-lifers who believe turning back the clock is the key to moving forward. You might try to recreate your youth by acting half your age, but you will likely end up feeling foolish. And, you remain confused.

2) Freezing.

If you keep going round and round or feel so paralyzed that you stop in your tracks, you are going to feel just that; your life is going around in circles. Continuing on, but essentially staying in one place, leads to that dreadful refrain at midlife, "Oh no, this can't be all there is!" You end up feeling stagnated and stuck in a rut.

3) In Neutral.

You may opt to continue moving forward, but you do so without thinking. It's a physical action, not an emotional one, so you end up feeling as if you are going straight to nowhere. At midlife, you may feel like you are "going through the motions," as if life is just passing you by. It can lead to feelings of meaninglessness and depression.

4) Fighting.

You may choose to be proactive, but you take a turn -- any turn -- just to change things up. You may be one of those mid-lifers who react reflexively and recklessly. You want out of where you are, regardless of where you are headed. The results often create collateral damage along the way -- abandoned mates, confused children, financial disaster -- and are rarely satisfying in the long term.

5) Pausing.

You stop long enough to think about your options when you come to this crossroad. If you acknowledge that you have hit an unexpected turning point in your life's journey, but don't immediately react, you will think clearly before making the next step. You pause as you look backwards, sideways and forward. Letting go of old habits may make room for new ones, but slowing down helps avert taking the wrong turn. Time helps you understand that the immediate goal is not simply to move forward, but to find your way toward a long-term satisfying path.

6) Pulling Over.

Even if you've been navigating through obstacles for most of your life, it may be time to reach out for help. While you may feel temporarily lost, you acknowledge that the most important immediate step is getting guidance, rather than putting your foot to the pedal. You decide to share what you are feeling and thinking and once you are clear about your options, you can start moving forward with greater confidence.

Visualizing this crossroad at this tumultuous time highlights the importance of using patience and courage to make conscious, thoughtful decisions. It reminds us to confront (rather than flee), contemplate (rather than fight) and be considerate (rather than reckless), as we try to productively move forward through this complicated time in our lives. While we may feel compelled to take action in order to shift the course of our lives, innovative ideas need to be realistic, not impossible. New behaviors need to be carefully crafted, rather than impulsive. The key is to make gradual measured changes that have long-term probability for success.

Large-scale studies show that as we pass through middle age, our satisfaction with life tends to follow a U-shaped curve. We may head toward our 40s with anxiety, fear and frustration (hitting the most difficult point at age 41), but as we head toward our 50s and 60s, we tend to accept our aging process and eventually rebound. For some, it may be the result of making dramatic changes in their life course. For others, it's gradual adjustments that seem to happen naturally over time. For most, it's a shift in expectations and finding ways to enjoy the life we have.

Midlife can be a time of great, overpowering emotions, but self re-evaluation can be a positive experience in the end. Instead of reacting reflexively, recognize your anxiety, see the signs that a crisis may be coming, explore your options carefully and share your experience with others. These are the keys to moving forward into the next phase of your life with renewed vitality and strength.

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