From my own personal experience and my professional practice as a depth coach and psychotherapist, a significant mid-life event can be a catalyst for significant and often needed emotional growth.
After writing this introductory sentence I reflected for a moment. Why had I inserted mid-life and why significant event? Surely any significant crisis or event at any stage of our lives can have a major impact. Absolutely it can, however mid-life seems to come with its own unique set of triggers.
Not all people experience a mid-life crisis but for some, mid-life is very apparent and can be an uncomfortable time emotionally. This can lead to significant psychological upheaval. Those who struggle with this transitional stage might experience a range of feelings such as:
• Unhappiness with life and the lifestyle that may have provided them with happiness for many years.
• Boredom with people and things that may have been of interest to them before.
• Feeling a need for adventure and change.
• Questioning the choices, they have made in their lives and the validity of decisions they made years before.
• Confusion about who they are and where they are going.
• Anger at their spouse and blaming them for feeling tied down.
• Unable to make decisions about where they want to go with their life.
• Doubt that they ever loved their spouse and resentment over the marriage.
• A desire for a new and passionate, intimate relationship.
It is common to see external factors acting as a catalyst and driver for change. Such events might include debt, loss of a loved one, breakup of a relationship, loss of a job or children leaving home with loss of role for the child carer. Woman also endure a midlife transition – perhaps even more so because of hormonal changes.
Some differences between the male and female mid-life transition include:
• Men are afraid of the changes that come with aging, their loss of virility and masculinity.
• Men are afraid of becoming less attractive to the opposite sex.
• Men are afraid of not attaining goals they have set for themselves.
• Men are less able to express themselves emotionally
• Women reach a certain age and find they finally have the opportunity to do all the things in life they have put off doing while caring for a family.
• Mid-life financial security provides woman the opportunity to explore all those things she has delayed.
• Women go through menopause, which means both biological and psychological changes.
So, while many midlife women are yearning to be free their male counterparts are lamenting “I just want to find me”. The middle passage is a modern concept. Until a few generations ago, life expectancy was little beyond what we now consider to be the commencement of mid-life, around 40-50 years old.
But its not just increasing life spans that allows for contemplation in this part of life – increased living standards and accumulated wealth means that for an increasing number, the lower levels of the personal hierarchy of needs as described by Abraham Maslow are satiated, allowing progress towards what appears to be an innate human drive for self-actualisation.
With the dawning of the middle years we have the realisation that we have less years ahead of us than are behind us. Our physical vitality starts declining and our biological drives of procreation, family raising and providing has by and large completed.
We have a dawning of what next? Existential questions such as meaning and purpose may start to invade our minds, we develop a restlessness for change, to find something more than just being on the hamster wheel of working until we are 65 and then retiring to an uncertain future with a finite lifespan.
And yet, within this tumultuous transition, our egos are defending against these life changes and it compensates by grandiosity. This delusion of greatness keeps at bay our darkness, we resist looking into our shadow. The ego also yearns for the perfect relationship. It hangs onto the early fairy tales and archetypes of “if only I could find the ideal partner, my life would be perfect”.
As we enter midlife, we start appreciating relationships are difficult and few if any couples have the perfect relationship and yet we delude ourselves into thinking we are different and we can find our “magical other”.
And so comes along another realisation of the middle passage: that intimate relationships have their limitations, that no one other person can meet all our needs. We project all our wants and desires onto our partners and with time we appreciate they do likewise and they too are full of vulnerabilities and fears.
And so midlife is a time when inordinate pressures are placed on marriages and many do not last the course. We are projecting our unconscious childhood needs on the other and these grandiose desires rarely can be met, leaving us feeling abandoned, rejected and betrayed. We project what is unclaimed or unknown within us. Life erodes these projections and we start appreciating we have to be accountable for this and we are the only ones that are responsible for our own contentment.
“The middle passage is an occasion for redefining and reorientating the personality, a rite of passage between the extended adolescence and our inevitable appointment with old age and mortality. Those who travel the passage consciously render their lives more meaningfully. Those who do not, remain prisoners of childhood, however successful they may appear in outer life.” James Hollis – The Eden Project – In search of the magical other.
James Roberts in his 1998 book “Crossing the Soul’s River describes the transition to greater consciousness in the middle passage as only being obtainable by addressing what he calls the four soul tasks:
1. Breakdown of the persona – the superficial identity we develop in the first half of our lives.
2. The encounter with the shadow – the dangerous side of our personality we have learned to deny, hide and suppress.
3. The encounter with the soul-mate / anima – the contra-sexual aspects of our personality.
4. The dialogue with the self. My own experience of my midlife crisis emulates what is outlined above.
My own precipitating crisis triggered by limerence, the breakdown of my persona, then starting to see the aspects of my shadow that had been hidden and then enduring a process of integration and increased consciousness. Its tough work. Its not for the feint hearted. Its what depth coaching is all about.
Going to those deep places within our psyche to truly understand who we are and what we are really capable of. Those last two words of increased consciousness are so important when it comes to leadership. The most effective leaders are those that are self aware and have increased consciousness. They understand and appreciate how they impact those around them. They have an ability to moderate and control their impulses. They have emotional intelligence. They understand their own inner landscape. And research is increasingly showing, these are the most effective leaders.