Maneuvering the midlife crisis
So you’re cruising through life, and everything seems to be going well. The career is great, the family is good, and then one day you get the distinct feeling that everything and nothing in your life is wrong, all at the same time. You can’t quite name the feeling, but it’s a kind of discontent that throws you off your game, leaving you unfocused and unsure about your future. Of course you feel guilty about having these feelings, because you should be grateful that life is as good as it is right now, and you are. It’s just that you can’t shake the restlessness that’s telling you something is off, something’s missing.
Beyond the Cliché
In 1965, Canadian psychologist Elliott Jacques started seeing a lot of men in their 50s expressing fears of aging. Many were concerned that they’d missed their true calling in life, while others regretted goals from their younger years that they’d never accomplished. It was very common for the men to pine over lost relationships from their youth, and nearly all of them were convinced it was too late to fix any of it. It was these kinds of feelings happening in middle age that Jacques first defined as a midlife crisis.
Unfortunately the media took hold of this information and with the help of Hollywood, quickly turned it into a joke and a cliché. When we hear the term midlife crisis, it’s almost impossible to fight off the mental image of an older man driving in a red sports car with a woman who’s 30 years younger than he is and throwing lots of money around. How many people roll their eyes at even the mention of a man possibly having a real midlife crisis and say “He’s just trying to recapture his youth”? The truth is both men and women can have a midlife crisis. The fact that the term was coined from a sample of men makes no difference, and trivializing this difficult experience doesn’t really help men or women get through it.
Some of the misconceptions about the midlife crisis come from the term itself. The word crisis implies that there’s a big emergency happening right now, with lots of drama. In fact, the opposite is true: The symptoms of a midlife crisis usually creep up on us so gradually that most of us don’t even notice it until we wake up one day and our lives just seem sort of gray. It might be more accurate to call it a midlife malaise than a crisis. Although there are lots of factors that create a different experience for each person, the main issues include:
- A general unhappiness with a life that used to satisfy you
- Unexplained feelings of lethargy, boredom, or depression; a lack of motivation to pursue your goals; a sense that your fire is gone
- Difficulty making decisions about your direction in life
- Lots of reminiscing about the good old days, checking up on long-lost friends and old boyfriends or girlfriends on social media
- Questioning past decisions
- An obsession with youthfulness or exercise
- Constantly comparing yourself to your friends
- Thoughts of death and dying
The word crisis actually comes from the Greek krisis, which means judgment or decision and is further derived from krinein, which means to separate, to decide. At some point in midlife—our 40s through 60s—most of us will be called upon to make certain decisions about the purpose and direction of our lives that will separate the second half from the first half in distinct ways.
“We’re regularly having experiences that separate us from our old life and set us off in a new direction with new decisions to be made.”
Contentment, Not Crisis
It’s estimated that 10 percent to 12 percent of men experience a classic midlife crisis, although these numbers likely account for men with heightened symptoms and who are usually seeing a therapist. Considering how subtle and universal the symptoms can be, I’m inclined to believe the average is higher, and it isn’t traditionally just a man’s problem, either. A study from Cornell University showed 34 percent of men and 36 percent of women reported a difficult midlife transition. How many of us have gotten up to go to work one morning after being in the same career for 25 years and asked ourselves, “So this is it? This is all there is to life?” You don’t have to be seeing a therapist to be struggling with personal fulfillment issues and the direction your life has taken.
The key to navigating through a midlife crisis is to understand what it really is, a search for more meaning and purpose in your life. It’s not a single event, but a time of transition and growth. Now that you’re established in your career and the kids are grown and maybe out of the house, your discontent is calling you back into dreams you’ve not yet lived. The focus of your life is shifting from taking care of others to feeding your soul and awakening creative desires you put on hold while you secured a home and raised a family. Those pangs of restlessness are actually pulling you back into alignment with who you really are. This is a time of creating true contentment, not crisis.
Actually, we navigate many crises throughout our lives. We’re regularly having experiences that separate us from our old life and set us off in a new direction with new decisions to be made. Some of these include getting married, having a baby, going through divorce, illness, death of a parent or spouse, losing a job, changing careers, or retirement. In many cases such as these, life unexpectedly pushes us onto a new path with things like the “oops” baby or getting downsized from a job. The midlife crisis is unique because for the first time we consciously realize that we have the power to redirect our lives and reinvent ourselves with more freedom and possibilities than we enjoyed in our younger years. When that light bulb goes on and the yearning for something more begins, we can make some big mistakes if we don’t understand what a midlife crisis is and how to handle it properly.
The first pitfall is to misinterpret the need for more meaning in life to be a need for more pleasure. These are the red sports car Lotharios who date women half their age that turn into the midlife crisis cliché. They use lots and lots of pleasure to temporarily mask their discontent, usually ending up feeling just as empty and directionless as when they started.
The second mistake is made by people who know they need to change their lives but do nothing to make that happen. They’re completely immobilized, like a deer in headlights, because they don’t know what to do or how to do it. Part of what scares us about midlife is realizing we really have the freedom to choose our own path. That freedom can be overwhelming, causing us to not choose anything. It reminds me of a famous news report back in the 1980s about a group of people who escaped the Soviet Union and claimed asylum in the US. The bigger story came when the people decided to go back to their communist country because they were entirely overwhelmed with the freedoms in the US. They couldn’t make choices and direct their own lives on a daily basis, so they returned to where someone else would do it for them.
The third mistake people tend to make in a midlife crisis is to hit the eject button and immediately exit their current lives. They quit everything, including their jobs, friends, and sometimes their marriages. With no forethought or pre-planning, these people often struggle for years to put their personal, professional, and financial lives back together again.
Finding Your New Direction
Once you understand that your midlife crisis is a good thing that’s guiding you into a more fulfilling life, you can take the necessary steps to begin finding that new path. Explore old hobbies and passions—see how they could be incorporated back into your life or how you might make a new career out of them. After living a certain routine for 20 or 30 years, some people think they have no passions anymore. A good way to begin finding a new passionate direction is to ask people close to you in what activities and situations they’ve seen you most alive. When they tell you, trust them and explore more of those things.
Lots of people work for companies that have mission statements, and every decision by the company is made to support that purpose. To move your life in a new direction, it can be helpful to make your own mission statement. When you do this, decision-making becomes easier because you can ask yourself whether a certain choice moves you closer to or farther away from your mission. A good mission statement should include what values you want to operate by, what you’ve chosen to do, and why you’re doing it. For example, maybe you’ve cracked people up in the office for years and now feel you could start to incorporate your secret passion for standup comedy into your life. Your new mission statement might sound something like this: “With candor and honesty, I use humor and storytelling to reveal the truth and inspire others to make a better world by changing the way they think and live.”
“The purpose of life is to learn, mostly from our mistakes, and start again with that information in a more intelligent way.”
Middle age is traditionally a time to reassess life, and everyone wants their life to have meaning. We’ve spent the last two to three decades establishing our careers, starting families, and working toward realizing all those dreams we laid out for ourselves back in our 20s. Whether we’ve accomplished those things in whole, in part, or not at all usually determines how much meaning we give our lives. At the same time, we’re getting a real sense of our mortality. We see ourselves physically aging; time feels like it’s flying by; and suddenly we realize how short life really is. Taking stock of the past is an important step in reinventing ourselves, but it also exposes us to the single biggest obstacle to making the second half of life a success—regret.
Midlife can sometimes feel like climbing the ladder to your dreams only to realize once you get to the top that you leaned it against the wrong building. Suddenly the life you’re living looks nothing like the life you planned. All sorts of regrets can run through your mind. I wish I’d gone to college. Why didn’t I start my own business when I had the chance? If only I’d pursued my passion as my career. I wish I’d worked harder to save my marriage. I let the love of my life slip away.
The purpose of life isn’t to have no regrets. Be thankful you can experience regret—otherwise you’d be a sociopath. The purpose of life is to learn, mostly from our mistakes, and start again with that information in a more intelligent way. So in reality, we could say there are no real mistakes, just more information. Thomas Edison famously said that he didn’t build 1,000 failed inventions on his way to creating the light bulb, but that the process of creating the light bulb had 1,000 steps. Embracing the F-word (failure) helps us recognize our mistakes as gifts and use them to move forward into success without beating ourselves up with regret.
Regret usually comes with a lot of grief attached, especially where relationships are concerned. It’s important to work through your grief, and a good therapist can be very helpful. In the end, it’s still all about learning, getting back in the driver’s seat of your life, and moving forward in a new direction. We do that by asking ourselves, What have I learned from this experience, how am I a better or wiser person because of it and what will I do differently next time?
Peace with the Past
Looking back on our lives, we can be pretty brutal on ourselves with all the I could haves and I should haves. Part of dissolving the grief that comes with regret is letting go of the false idea that somehow we should have known better; somehow we should have had a crystal ball, seen all the options with absolute clarity and made the perfect choice. It’s unfair and even absurd to take an event from the distant past and judge your actions from the knowledge you have now. It makes no sense to retro shame yourself because the person that made those choices is a completely different human being than the one you are today. At least I hope you’re a different person than when you were 25 or 35. I know I am. You would never expect someone in his or her 20’s or 30’s to be as world-wise and self-aware as someone over 40. So don’t expect it of yourself, either.
Letting go of regret means making peace with the fact that the past could have been any different based on the amount of knowledge and self-awareness you had at that time. We’re all doing the best we can with the amount of information we have available to us in any given moment: If you could have done better, you would have. It’s that simple. So stop beating up on yourself. Everyone has regrets, and the only way to use them to improve your life is to not hate yourself for having them.
It’s Too Late
Besides guilt and grief, the other aspect of regret that makes it so painful in midlife is the idea that it’s too late. Too many years have passed and there isn’t enough time to go after what you really want or opportunities you missed. One of the biggest ways we convince ourselves it’s too late is by believing we’re too old to go after what we want. Yes, aging comes with inevitable physiological changes, but we can do a lot to slow that process down in a way that keeps us healthier much longer than our parents were at the same age. Think about your parents and grandparents at your current age. Odds are you’re in much better health and look and feel better than they did back then. I’m not going to say 80 is the new 60, but health science and anti-aging techniques have seriously changed the game in middle age, and that means more opportunities stay open to us much longer. Obviously that doesn’t mean you can still try out for the US Olympic team. Some trains have left the station and aren’t coming back again, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other things that can be fulfilling in similar ways.
There’s an old English proverb that says “A man is not old until his dreams become his regrets.” Aging is unavoidable, but it’s not the same as getting old. People get old when they give up and stop living because they give in to the lie that it’s too late. The best way to escape getting old is to see all your mistakes as information to make another choice. That way, you have no real regrets and can use what you learn to keep dreaming new dreams and going after them.
So in reality, your life experience doesn’t emerge from your physical body or chronological age. It comes largely from your state of mind and the choices you make from that perspective. We fall prey to regret when we let the world define what success means for us. The great thing about midlife is that we finally get the courage to stop caring about what other people think. So take a risk to make a new dream and pursue it. It’s only too late if you think it is. After all, the only way to get the best fruit is to go out on a limb.
“The past is gone; it has no power over you and never did.”
Lessons on Living from the Dying
Another great way to neutralize regret and help reset your priorities in midlife is to look at the difference between the regrets of the living and the regrets of the dying. According to Psychology Today, when categorized, the majority of regrets healthy people have concern education. These are followed by regrets about careers, romantic relationships, and then parenting choices. For the dying, regrets are more fundamental and larger in scope. They don’t involve single events or lost opportunities, but instead focus on the way life is lived. Bronnie Ware is a palliative-care nurse who treated hundreds of dying patients and wrote a book about her experience, The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. According to Ware, the most common regrets expressed to her by dying patients were:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
People-pleasing is a difficult trap to escape. Midlife is the prime opportunity to reinvent yourself and be your own person.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
This was expressed by nearly every male patient. The drive to achieve can leave men missing out on once-in-a-lifetime moments, particularly with children—memories they’ll never have.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Suppressed emotions are never healthy, but how often do we not speak our minds just to keep the peace? Why do we have such trouble standing up for ourselves or asking for what we deserve? Why is it so hard to say “I love you?”
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Things like careers, marriage, and having children pull us onto new paths, causing us to spend less and less time with our friends until we’ve faded out of one another’s lives altogether. Later in life we find it’s the history we have with our friends that’s the real gift. As the saying goes, Make new friends but keep the old, for one is silver, the other gold.
5. I wish I’d let myself be happier.
In most situations, happiness is a choice, just like everything else.
With this in mind, it might be a little easier to let go of individual regrets and focus more on the overall quality of our lives from this point forward. When we do that, we find a lot more to be thankful for, not to mention the opportunity to redefine who we are and what we’re about with better choices through hard-won wisdom.
The Point of Power
Other ways to help you move through regret include using the emotions you feel to push you to create new things and opportunities. There are countless success stories of people who lost everything and used their anger and frustration to rebuild a better life or bigger business empire. Think about how you could help others avoid the same pitfalls with the knowledge you have. Teaching others, especially young people, in this way can provide a unique kind of closure that’s very healing for the loss you feel.
Above all else, remember to act on what you’ve learned. The past is gone; it has no power over you and never did. The point of power is always in the present moment, because that’s the only place you get to make choices. Remember, it’s much easier to reconcile the regret of things you did rather than things you didn’t do. So forgive yourself, make a bold choice, and move forward. No regrets.
 The myth of the male mid-life crisis. CBS News Sunday Morning, (June 22, 2011) http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-myth-of-the-male-mid-life-crisis/.
 Sue, Shellenbarger. (April 7, 2005). The female midlife crisis: more women than men now report upheaval by age 50. The wall street journal, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB111283464791500330.
 Shrira, Ilan . (September 18, 2010). The biggest regret of your life: avoiding irrevocable mistakes. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-narcissus-in-all-us/201009/the-biggest-regret-your-life.
 Ware, Bronnie. (2012). The top five regrets of the dying: a life transformed by the dearly departing. London: Hay House.
Dr. Habib Sadeghi is the co-founder of Be Hive of Healing, an integrative health center based in Los Angeles. He provides revolutionary healing protocols in integrative, osteopathic, anthroposophical, environmental, and family medicine, as well as clinical pharmacology. He served as an attending Physician and Clinical Facilitator at UCLA-SM Medical Center and is currently a Clinical Instructor of Family Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences. Dr. Sadeghi is a regular contributor to Goop, CNN, BBC News and TEDx. He is the author of Within: A Spiritual Awakening to Love & Weight Loss, as well as the foreword to Gwyneth Paltrow’s It’s All Good, and is the publisher of the health and well-being journal, MegaZEN.