In the movie City Slickers the character played by Billy Crystal hits his 39th birthday and finds himself in a slump. His boss tries to find out what’s the matter, but Crystal’s character just sits there, staring glumly ahead. Finally, he looks up with a pained expression.
“Did you ever reach a point in your life,” he asks, “where you say to yourself, ‘This is the best I’m ever going to look, the best I’m ever going to feel, the best I’m ever going to do? And it ain’t that great?’”
That’s as good a description as any of what a midlife crisis is all about. Of course, Billy Crystal’s alter ego is far from the only hombre to ride nervously past the buzzards of Midlife Gulch. Ulysses, Dante, and Michelangelo have been there. So have Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
In his late thirties, Shakespeare switched from writing comedies to writing tragedies, producing in the process King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello — all tales of men who discover too late that their lives have gone seriously awry.
What is This Vague, Uncomfortable Feeling?
What, exactly, constitutes a midlife crisis? Experts agree there’s no single definition, although a pervasive sense of disappointment and a nagging feeling that time’s running out would be among the major characteristics. Larry Bumpass, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who directs the National Survey of Families and Households, says there’s “an array” of at least 40 events that commonly occur at midlife, from losing a job to the death of a parent, a flagging libido, divorce, or illness.
Midlife for men today is tougher than it’s ever been, says Ronald Levant, Ed.D., a psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School. The Ozzie and Harriet model of family life no longer prevails, he says, and new demands on men can exacerbate the confusion of midlife transition.
“It’s more of a crisis now than it might have been for our fathers because of the dynamic changes in the role of women and the structure of the American family,” Dr. Levant says. “Midlife men are now living with role expectations that are vastly different from when they grew up. The traditional masculine code has been broken.”
No Need to Panic
Many experts believe the word “crisis” overstates the degree of angst most middle-age men experience. These same experts also say that many of the stereotypes about men at midlife-such as their burning desire to hold onto youth by latching onto a younger woman-aren’t necessarily true. “Sure, we all know somebody who left his wife for his secretary when he was 45. But men leave their wives when they’re younger, too,” says Dr. Bumpass.
In fact, Dr. Bumpass’s research demonstrates quite clearly that the risk of divorce actually declines the longer people are married. Another study, conducted at the New England Research Institute by psychologist John B. McKinlay, Ph.D. showed that only 2 percent of over 1,700 middle age and older men surveyed reported having more than one current sexual partner, a far lower rate than the stereotypes would have us believe.
The word “crisis” applies more to how midlife transitions are handled than to the fact that transitions are taking place, says Leonard Felder, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles and an expert on midlife and career issues.
“Most people between the ages of 30 and 50 go through some major shifts in the way they see themselves and the way they feel about their lives,” he says. “That’s normal. It’s a crisis if men act impulsively during it. If they throw away their wives, kids, friends, then it’s a crisis. If they carefully think this through, it’s a fascinating transition.”
Take Stock of Your Life
That midlife regrets can serve as a potent catalyst for personal growth is a theme sounded repeatedly by experts from many disciplines. “I would go so far as to call it a midlife opportunity,” says Marsha Sinetar, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist and the author of Do What You Love; the Money Will Follow. “It’s time to look at questions like, Who am I? What do I believe? What do I really need? Those are issues worth examining. This means taking yourself seriously, perhaps for the first time.”
The first recommended step for getting the most out of your midlife agonies is to listen to them. Therapists say there’s a strong temptation to deny the questions that come up at midlife because the answers are sometimes threatening.
“Accept what’s happening,” says Dr. Sinetar. “Try to relax into the chaos. Trust that you’re going to find something wonderful in it.”
Finding Your Mid-Life Passion
1. Goof off.
Probably the most pleasant technique for tapping into the subconscious is to hop off the roller coaster for a while. “We need to find spaces for privacy and silence, time for reflection and creative, leisurely engagements,” Dr. Sinetar says. She recommends making a point to spend some quiet time alone every day, reading inspiring verse or surrounded by nature, if possible. A more extended prayer and meditation retreat also may prove invaluable.
During those quiet times, Dr. Sinetar advises disengaging the intellect as much as possible; the point is to daydream, to renew, to muse. “The mind does not want to change,” she says. “New insights, new ideas, new optimism surface as you give yourself room to breathe.”
2. Write your story.
The art of journaling-in essence writing an autobiography-is a key part of the midlife workshops given by Janice Brewi, E.T.D., co-director of a consulting firm called Mid-Life Directions in Newark, New Jersey. “Taking a good look at your life re-energizes you,” she says. “There’s a need to make peace, a need to remember the good things, a need to learn perspective.”
3. Tell the truth.
Now is the time to start being honest about who you really are, Dr. Sinetar says. In that pursuit, it’s important to find somebody trustworthy and competent to practice telling your truth to-that way you’ll hear it yourself. Friends can help, but many men haven’t developed the facility for intimate discussion that women have. Better late than never. Robert Simmons, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Alexandria, Virginia, says there are men’s groups in many cities specifically geared toward exploring these sorts of issues.
4. Finding a therapist is another option.
If you do look for professional help, Dr. Sinetar strongly recommends choosing someone who will help you work through the process of rediscovery rather than stunt it by defining your crisis as something to be gotten through as quickly and as “neatly” as possible. The same goes for friends, says Dr. Felder. When choosing your “cabinet of advisers,” he says, always remember that you’re the president, and “don’t pick people who are trying to sell you on what they did.”
5. Uncover yourself.
Carl Jung observed, and subsequent studies have borne out, a tendency in midlife to undergo what Jung called a “contra-sexual transition,” in which men become more nurturing, needy, and reflective while women become more independent and aggressive. “Unlived parts of our personalities can begin to make themselves known in midlife,” says Dr. Brewi.
Encouraging those unlived parts of ourselves to emerge can provide an exhilarating sense of discovery, and help relieve the sense of loss that often accompanies midlife transition. Many men become involved in community affairs: coaching their son’s soccer team, perhaps, or volunteering at the local soup kitchen.
Career Considerations at Mid-Life
For men, one of the most difficult aspects of middle age is dealing with disappointments in their careers. In his book The Male Ego, Willard Gaylin, M.D., says that when men in our culture commit suicide (which they do almost eight times as frequently as women), in most cases the reason is “perceived social humiliation” related to business failure.
A “reorganization of life goals” is one of midlife’s principal tasks, says Gilbert Brim, Ph.D., a social psychologist who heads the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Mid-Life Development in Vero Beach, Florida. For anyone who feels frustrated by his professional progress so far, Dr. Brim recommends a three-step process of career re-evaluation in his book Ambition: How We Manage Success and Failure Throughout Our Lives.
Extend the deadline. Many of us set arbitrary deadlines for ourselves, Dr. Brim says, then grow despondent when we’ve failed to meet them in the time allotted. The simple solution is to grant yourself an extension. “You can tell yourself, ‘Okay, I didn’t get rich this year. I’ll make it next year,’” says Dr. Brim.
Lower your aspiration. This is another instance of relieving self-induced pressure. Shoot for making a hundred thousand dollars instead of ten million, Dr. Brim says, or buy a cozy cottage on the beach instead of that 12-room Victorian you’ve always dreamed of. One of the signs of midlife maturity is accepting limitations.
Abandon the goal. When all else fails, Dr. Brim says, give up on a goal that’s not achievable. Again, an ability to accept reality is key to successful midlife transitions. The goal is peace of mind, not winning some sweepstakes you’ve created for yourself.
Similar exercises work, Dr. Brim adds, for those who have achieved their goals and still feel dissatisfied-a group that is a lot larger than you probably think. In this case the first alternative would be finding a new, more ambitious goal to achieve; alternative two would be switching to a new pursuit entirely. “Linus Pauling is a perfect example of that,” Dr. Brim says. “After winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry, he switched to being a world-peace leader.”
Martin, B. (2011). The Mid-Life Crisis: An Opportunity in Disguise?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 14, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-mid-life-crisis-an-opportunity-in-disguise/00010442
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.