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Midlife-A Crisis of Transition

What is midlife? It is the beginning of the second half of life -- psychologically and physiologically. Midlife usually starts between the ages of 35 and 50. It continues until we have resolved its issues; thus, it might end within a few years, or it could persist into our 60s.

Midlife does not have to be a "crisis." It is merely a natural developmental stage of life; it is the transition from early adulthood into "maturity." Rather than being "the beginning of the end," it can be viewed as an exciting fresh start, when we set aside whatever we have outgrown, and we move onward to develop ourselves in new directions. Midlife is a "crisis" only if we fight the transformations; this resistance might include:

  1. An unwillingness to confront the challenges of midlife.

  2. Anger toward of the aging process (with its wrinkles and other physical changes)

  3. A futile clinging to the habits and perspectives of our youth.

  4. A fundamental unreadiness (because we have not accomplished the requirements of the first part of life, as explained in the next section).

Midlife is the transition from ego-development to ego-transcendence. Midlife is not simply a chronological milestone; it is a specific psychological stage which marks the end of our ego-development phase.

  1. It is the end. Midlife starts when we have virtually completed the tasks of the first half of our life; i.e., we have developed the ego and its external correlates -- our job, family, finances, achievements, habits, viewpoints, expansion and conquest, social identity (through the separation of the persona from the shadow), and the establishment of ourselves as individuals (through the individuation process).

  2. It is a beginning. During midlife, the ego must be well-defined in order to stand firm when the ego's antitheses emerge to demand recognition and integration into our wholeness. Those antitheses -- whose emergence is the essence of the midlife event -- include the shadow, and the anima or animus, and the Self or soul.

    • The shadow: Secure within our ego, we know who we are, as the shadow-elements arise to show us that we also contain the opposite of those traits.

    • The anima or animus: Strong in our gender-identity as man or woman, we can tolerate the characteristics of our contrary anima or animus. Many previously dominant males suddenly find contentment in quiet, introspective diversions which satisfy their anima, while their homemaker-wives discover their animus and so they come to life as community leaders.

    • The Self or soul: Safe within the structure of our ego, we can perceive these other centers of identity without being confused, and without compromising the ego while embracing the new identities. We are still separate individuals while simultaneously transcending that separateness and being something more besides. Contrarily, if our ego boundaries are ill-defined, our encounter with the Self can cause us to plunge into a vague, oceanic "oneness" in which we no longer tend our personal duties and needs.

The characteristics of midlife. Depending upon our unique experience of midlife, we can expect some or all of the following conditions. For each condition, this list presents the usual unpleasant perspective, and then it presents a positive perspective.  

  1. Dissatisfaction with our life. In the first half of life, we might have been felt a passionate drive toward goals, and we enjoyed the achievement of those goals -- family, job, home, power, social position, etc. At midlife, the drive might dissipate into boredom, restlessness, dullness, discontent, meaninglessness, and disillusionment. "Is this all there is?" We might realize that some of our goals had never been meaningful; we had accepted them because society or our parents had said that they were important.

    • A positive perspective: This dissatisfaction causes us to abandon the goals and values which are no longer useful or appropriate in our new phase of growth. We need to develop other goals and values in order to fulfill our responsibilities to this new phase.

  2. Disorientation. We lose our previous identity and our goals (and perhaps even our children, in the "empty nest"); thus, we do not know who we are, or what we do. We might try to regain an earlier sense of identity through what Jung called the "regressive restoration of the persona"; unwilling or unable to explore our emerging identity, we return to adolescent behaviors, which served us when we were looking for an identity during our youth.

    • A positive perspective: This disorientation is a natural part of the temporary transition period, as we develop our new identity, priorities, and direction. This is indeed the time to revise our sense of identity, and to allow the shadow's opposites to arise. As our former persona becomes lifeless and crusty, we can find vitality in the fresh, previously repressed, and now obviously golden, parts of our shadow.

  3. A realization that our youth has ended. We have lost the benefits of the young: boundless optimism, enthusiasm, and vitality. And yet, as Jung said (in Psychology and the Occult), "Nobody seems to consider that not being able to grow old is just as absurd as not being able to outgrow child's-size shoes. A still infantile man of thirty is surely to be deplored, but a youthful septuagenarian -- isn't that delightful? And yet both are perverse, lacking in style, psychological monstrosities."

    • A positive perspective: We can set aside youth's shortcomings: its naivete, its impatience, and its pressure to succeed in a constant stream of difficult situations. We can claim the badges of maturity: skill, knowledge, wisdom, experience, and a vast assortment of lush memories while we continue to grow in new ways to acquire other types of skill, knowledge, wisdom, and experience.

  4. A knowledge of the inevitability of death. No longer able to hide in the illusion of immortality, we become more aware that we will die. Now, more of our friends are dying. Adding to this cognizance of physical death, we see the death of our former perspectives, identities, values, and other aspects of our inner self.

    • A positive perspective: The confrontation with our mortality can impart a profound meaning to our existence, including our relationships and loves.

  5. An awareness of our limitations. We realize that we will not fulfill all of our aspirations in career, family, personal development, etc. Perhaps profoundly disappointed, we watch the fading of previous idealizm, hope, and expectations; thus we might feel a sense of loss, sorrow, grief, and nostalgia. We see younger, brighter people passing us in their careers, and we know that we will probably become less productive and useful as old age envelops us.

    • A positive perspective: We gain a philosophical understanding of our humanness and its innate limitations, and of the new types of goals which we can establish for our future. This can be a time to relish our accomplishments, and to be a mentor to young people who are still rising toward their peak.

  6. Biological changes. These changes can include wrinkles, hormonal adjustments (which are more severe for women), reduced vigor, loss of youthful attractiveness, new aches and pains, and other signs of aging. Both men and women experience the climateric -- the glandular changes which eventually terminate our ability to have children; in women, the finale of the climateric is called menopause. At midlife, many people become more concerned with their health, knowing that it will no longer be sustained by the resilience of youth.

    • A positive perspective: We might explore "inner beauty" -- and humility -- as our external beauty fades. Our new interest in health, vitality, and longevity can foster respect and caring for our body.

  7. A change in our moods. We might become withdrawn, emotional, irrational, and depressed.

    • A positive perspective: The moods turn our attention inward, where we can view the psychological processes of midlife, including our meeting with new archetypes and the Self or soul.

  8. Radical behavioral changes. In the "foolish forties," the upsurge of libido can propel us to seek excitement through a different lifestyle, a new job, a different home, a lover (perhaps requiring the divorce of our spouse), or a new religion.

    • A positive perspective: Some of these changes are necessary, as we align our outer world to conform to our inner transformation. Other changes are misguided attempts to re-gain our youthfulness.

  9. Fear of sexual diminishment. Men worry that they will lose their potency during old age. To confirm their sexuality (or perhaps simply to look attractive as their youth fades), some men and women dye their white hair, and they buy a wardrobe which suggests vitality, and they pursue a young person for romance.

    • A positive perspective: The fear is largely unfounded; many people are sexually active past midlife, and they enjoy the knowledge that there will not be an unwanted pregnancy. If there is a lessening of the sexual drive, many older people compensate by finding new meaningful ways to express their love and affection.

  10. A sense of tragedy for the introvert. According to Jung, the first half of life is a time for assertion in establishing ourselves in society; in contrast, introversion would make us too sensitive and passive in the turf battles of youth. Later, at midlife, introversion becomes our natural state. Now, the extravert -- who has probably been successful in the development of ego and position in life -- might have difficulty in adjusting to the psyche's demands for introspection. But the person who was an introvert during youth might face a deeper crisis -- the devastating realization that he or she has missed the opportunity to live a rich, dynamic life of experiences and social contacts and bold adventure; what lies ahead is perhaps a deepening listlessness in a life which "never got off the ground." As the shadow arises in midlife, the introvert might discover the previously hidden qualities of bravery, and lust for life, and a craving for relationships -- and the energy of the shadow might allow for a fruitful expression of some of these new elements -- but the former introvert no longer has the youthful vitality for chasing some of these external goals, nor does he or she have the particular opportunities which have already passed by, nor have the cooperation of the current psychological stage of growth (i.e., midlife), which exerts pressure to turn inward.

    • A positive perspective: For neither extravert nor introvert is midlife an absolute switch from external to internal values; both will have leeway to pursue external goals and internal reflection. For some introverts, midlife is not a disaster; on the contrary, feeling less of the youthful pressure to chase outer goals, they can now engage their quiet interests with fewer distractions.

  11. A search for spiritual meaning. Some midlifers become more concerned with their spiritual values and their relationship to spirit, because of various reasons: (1) their approaching death, (2) the general confusion of their lives (and their resulting call for divine help and guidance), (3) the general reflection which can occur during midlife, and (4) the emergence of the Self or soul. Jung said (in his Collected Works XI), "Among all my patients in the second half of life, there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life .. and none of them has really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook."

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