Picture a slightly greying man in a baseball cap and sunglasses, behind the wheel of a convertible sports car with the top down. On the passenger side sits a blonde half his age.
Now imagine a woman staring out the window, losing interest in seemingly everything in life, wondering what became of her marriage and her best years in life.
We’re talking, of course, about the mid-life crisis. It’s an age-old, time-honoured cliché. And it comes in many shapes and sizes, with consequences ranging from trivial (but laughable) to dire. Midlife crises can tear apart relationships, break homes, end careers, and cause financial ruin. The impetuous and rash decisions made in these precarious stages can have lasting, life-altering effects. That’s why it’s important to recognize the signs of a midlife crisis before it actually becomes a crisis. That way you (and those around you) can get out ahead of the situation and take control. Midlife doesn’t have to be an unpleasant time. Here’s how you can make the most of it!
What is a Midlife Crisis? Why Does It Happen?
The very definition of “midlife” or “middle aged” itself is changing. What was once thought of as something that occurs around age 30 to 40 has now evolved into a stage from perhaps ages 45 to 60, possibly even longer than that, as humans are living longer and longer nowadays. This phase can last a year or two, or as much as a decade.
But what exactly is a midlife crisis? For starters, we can establish that this is neither a disorder nor an illness. And while common, it’s also not a phenomenon that happens to everyone – not like getting grey hair or wrinkles. Rather, the phrase refers to a transition of life stages that has a tendency to get a little bumpy for many people (more bumps for some folks than for others).
A midlife crisis can be defined in several ways. Webster’s calls it “a period of emotional turmoil in middle age characterized especially by a strong desire for change.” The modern term was coined by psychologist Elliott Jaques, who wrote about “a time when adults reckon with their own mortality and their remaining years of productive life.” This transition period centers around self-identity and self-confidence, in which one begins to reflect more on what he or she has done – and not done – in life thus far. It’s a “crisis” in that feelings of urgency to change or do more become prevalent. It’s not uncommon for these feelings to manifest as depression and/or anxiety.
Midlife crises often accompany life events such as:
– Loss of job, career change (even accompanying promotions or new jobs)
– ‘Empty nest’ syndrome when children move out
– Death of a close friend or relative
– Divorce (often a “which came first” scenario)
While these are some of life’s bigger moments, and their accompanying midlife crises are often more apparent, a more subtle onset of the midlife crisis is quite common. It’s one thing to be confronted with a dramatic or sudden event. Would that be more traumatic? Quite possibly. But a series of smaller events over time can cause subtle changes that, in total, amount to a major transition. And, again playing on stereotypes, it’s often a matter of waking up one day, looking at oneself in the mirror, and asking “who is THAT person and how did this all happen??!!”
Signs of difficulties coping with this transition include:
– Frustration with (or being in denial of) aging
– Feeling less energetic, vibrant or attractive
– Changes in life goals (sometimes rapid or erratic)
– Impulsive behaviour
– Feelings of regret, filled with thoughts of “what could have been”
– Fear of one’s ultimate demise (perhaps looming far but appearing closer and closer)
– Interest in relationships beyond the marriage
– Substance abuse, drinking too much, binge eating, etc.
– Depression, anxiety, other emotional issues
If you’re “of a certain age” and are feeling some of these things, you’re not alone. It’s quite common to experience at least some symptoms, even if it isn’t a full-blown midlife crisis. If you haven’t gotten there yet, or if you know someone who has, tuck these away or pass them along. In any case, the key is to be aware of the signs. That way you’ll be able to make and implement a plan to survive and thrive in this stage of life.
Which mid-life crisis symptoms are seen earliest? Which are more obvious? What might be hidden or lurking?
The earliest symptoms of a midlife crisis are likely often related to physical appearance or ability. You might find yourself doing more in the areas of exercise or personal grooming, joining a gym (and actually going this time!) and/or spending more on hair styling and wardrobe, etc. Maybe you’re looking in the mirror more these days, simultaneously shaking your head at the changes (weight gain, grey hair, balding, etc.) but also perhaps focused on making improvements. The idea of “freedom” is increasingly important. That’s evidenced on the physical side in the desire for free-flowing movement (jogging, running, dance, yoga, biking… or even more extreme movement like motorcycling or skydiving).
Okay, let’s address that motorcycle or sports car purchase. It’s one of the classic hallmarks of a midlife crisis. Why? Varying reasons. Some men (and, not to stereotype, but the vast majority on this one are male) say it’s because they want a “new project” or a “toy” to occupy their mind and their time. Fair enough. A few might buy that toy to show off; a sign of social status or financial position they’ve achieved. Many others do so – though are less forthcoming or self-aware about the reasons as to why – to relive their youth, or somehow get a “second chance” at being young again. The freedom (there it is again!) and unencumbered nature of youth gives many of us something to reminisce about later on in life… yearning to have that feeling again, longing for the good old days. That’s much of the essence of the midlife crisis right there, isn’t it?
By the way, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make improvements.
Weight loss is good… so long as you’re not obsessed with it, to an unhealthy extent. Being physically fit will help you as you go through this stage and into subsequent years of life. Don’t over-exert yourself, and ask yourself whether you’re doing this for vanity or for health.
Buying new clothes can also be harmless or even beneficial. You’re treating yourself to something nice, you deserve it, and you want to feel good about yourself. It only becomes a potential if, again, it veers towards the obsession phase. Buying clothes in the hopes of “looking much younger” is another midlife crisis signature, and usually draws more mockery and judgment than respect or admiration.
If and when you catch yourself doing some of these things, ask yourself why. ‘Why did I buy that?’ ‘Why did I text her?’ ‘Why did I yell at my kid?’
Better yet, when you have feelings, catch them before you act.
Okay, So The Midlife Crisis is a Real Thing… Now What?
Here’s the good news: A Midlife Crisis is somewhat avoidable and totally survivable!
Once you know what to expect and be on the lookout for, you can see it coming (maybe even a mile away). This lets you be prepared for the not-quite-inevitable, armed with information and ready to react. In addition to what we highlighted above, here are some other midlife crisis signs and symptoms to watch for:
– Desire to quit your job
– Desire to move to a different city
– Desire to run away and escape it all
– Desire to participate in activities which are bad for you (overconsumption of alcohol or food, illicit drug use, etc.)
– Less desire to do things that used to bring you pleasure or happiness
– Urges to act out in anger
– Urges to have an extramarital affair, relations with someone much younger, etc.
– Reminiscing about the “good old days” (with a desire to return to those “simpler times”)
– Complaining about the state of society, the world today, etc.
Notice a theme here? Desires and Urges! Those are the common feelings brought on by a midlife crisis.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong with having the desire to do any of these things. Following up with action, however, can be detrimental. Now that you know the signs, you’re more likely a midlife crisis starting to creep up on you. You don’t have to act. You don’t have to live the cliché. Take those feelings and redirect them towards other activities – spend more time at the gym, get outdoors and engage in more physical activities, get a hobby (but maybe not the sports car!), etc.
And not all desires are bad. A common theme in midlife is the desire to simplify your life… minimize, downsize, etc. That can be a very good, constructive, positive thing to do. Just be careful if an urge takes you to the extreme, e.g. giving away all your earthly possessions and joining a cult (“It’s not a cult! It’s a group of like-minded people who truly understand me!”).
Even better news: the downward cycle of unease and displeasure in the middle years of life is NOT a permanent thing. On the contrary, it’s said to be a temporary phase. Many have called this the “U-Curve.” Think of a bell curve, downward shaped of course, on a graph. A.k.a. “rock bottom,” the midlife crisis is typically the phase from the downward line until things flatten out. The best part is that things tend to pick up again in good time. The trick, of course, is to survive your 40s! Easier said than done? Not if you know what to look out for, what to avoid, and what to do instead – and you do now!
Need help getting through a phase of your Midlife Crisis?
Now that you’re aware of the midlife crisis signs, you’ll know it when you see it. That means that, in most cases, you’ll be able to react with a cool, calm approach that will keep you sailing through an otherwise enjoyable time of life. If, however, you find yourself struggling with a particular aspect of your midlife crisis, such as depression, anxiety, anger or relationship issues, Capital Choice Counselling in Ottawa is here to help. Our trained psychologists, therapists and counsellors know all about midlife crises, and they can help you get back on track. Contact us today to book an appointment and get started on your journey onward and upward!