There’s so much chatter around the idea of “midlife crisis” – and it’s a concept I really can’t bear. Why must society characterise midlife as a drama? Make the rhetoric around it so damn negative? Yes, changes are occurring and yes, for some menopause can be a challenge, but what if we reframed midlife and, rather than a time of “crisis”, looked at it instead as a time to choose?
The idea of “midlife crisis” has only existed since the mid-1960s, originated by a rather controversial Canadian psychoanalyst, Elliott Jaques. But is the “crisis” even real? A 25-year study by the University of Alberta in Canada concluded – no great surprise here – that happiness does not screech to a halt when you turn 40. In fact, there is an overall upward trajectory of happiness that begins in our teens and early twenties. So what’s the negativity all about?
By the time we hit midlife, we’ve experienced some pretty big changes. We might have switched careers, retired, experienced loss, brought up children and seen them leave, or had relationships that failed – not to mention the hormonal roller coaster we’re probably still riding. In terms of numbers, we’ve reached a halfway point, so we naturally start thinking about what we’ve achieved. We try to make sense of our present – and how it relates to our future, too.
That’s when the “crisis” can kick in. Questions like “Am I enough?” take root in our mind. And the answers can be scary. We might spiral into confusion. We worry, too, about what we perceive we have lost: youth, desirability, visibility, cool. But what if, in the midst of all this fear, instead of making negative decisions, we just paused to think? Used the time for reflection? Readjusted our goals and made peace with our past? Because now we have choices. The trappings of
responsibility are falling away and we have the freedom of options up ahead. We can actively focus on our own happiness, the opportunities to come – and leave behind the things that no longer serve.
A 2016 study from the British Psychological Society discovered people who experienced a midlife “crisis” and were ultra-focused on their purpose in the world were likely to find creative solutions to their challenges. All it took was a shift in the way they thought. They used the skills they’d honed over the years – strength, resilience, resourcefulness, adaptability – to move on and form new relationships, travel more adventurously, think differently. They set new boundaries around living for themselves.
The brilliant Brené Brown says: “People may call what happens at midlife a ‘crisis’, but it’s not. It’s an unravelling – a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re ‘supposed’ to live. The unravelling is a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.”
I know that sounds scary: making a choice to relinquish the old stuff and grab hold of the new. But what’s the alternative? A downward spiral of dissatisfaction and, ultimately, despair? Sinking fully into the “crisis”, never to emerge? The unravelling is something I actively embrace. It’s hard, yes, and sometimes I need to summon every ounce of my courage, but then I think of the opportunities that lie ahead and I’m excited. I’m moving forward.
The actor Helena Bonham Carter told BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour last week: “Come on, we are in our prime in our sixties. We’ve got everything. We’ve come into our power.” I love that. We’re all coming into our power. Let’s make that journey together.