“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes”. – Carl Jung
What do you think of when you hear the term ‘mid-life crisis?’ For many of us, it’s the old trope of the middle-aged man who suddenly decides to blow all his savings on a flashy sports car or some other life change intended to regain his youth. However, the mid-life crisis is actually a well-known psychological phenomenon, that happens to men and women alike, and one that has been well -researched over the years.
Psychoanalyst Carl Jung has described the concept of a ‘second adulthood’, which comes out of a process of ‘individuation’. This can be a way to understand what is happening in mid-life when we begin to feel compelled to make changes. According to Jung, when we first become adults we are still working out how we want to live, and what we want our lives to be. Often, we are also working out who we want to be. We try out different adult roles, perhaps doing things that we think are expected of us, rather than what we truly want to do. We might look up to role models and assume that we have to be more like them in order to be a real adult. We feel the pressure to be living life in an acceptable way – that means, being perceived as acceptable to those around us.
By the time we hit mid-life, we have tired of being the person we thought we should be, and as we start to understand our mortality with our advancing years, we start to feel the need to live life the way we really want to, with the time we have left. We begin to turn inward, and to find what really matters to us, instead of what we assume people might think of us. This can mean making big changes in relationships or careers, spiritual awakenings, or simply spending cash on things we denied ourselves.
Hearing the call
So what can trigger a mid-life crisis? There are many different reasons that someone may start to hear the call towards individuation. For some, it can be a crisis or major change that forces them to re-evaluate their lives, such as an accident, or being made redundant. In the latter example, finding yourself out of work for the first time in decades can be a real shock to the system, but it can also be the catalyst for big changes. Many people change career at this point in their lives, choosing to get out of the rat race, or turn a long-loved hobby into their day job.
For others, it may be the natural progress of life that leaves space for new possibilities. When children leave the nest, a person whose identity was strongly bound up in their family life and their role as a parent will have to find a new source of meaning to their lives. Clients have told me that they feel they no longer have a function once their children move out, and they are left wondering who they are in the world. This is not uncommon, and the secret is to use this space to create a new way of life, rather than remain feeling lost in the vacuum.
Life is not a dress rehearsal
The turn inward in mid-life can be described as a desire to live more authentically, to become the person we really are, rather than who we thought others wanted us to be. We are also transcending the self in many ways, and seeking to ensure that we have lived a life that has some meaning in a wider context, that there has been a reason for being here. For many, this means having a positive impact on others, having a legacy that we can leave. There is a sense of urgency that may not have been there before, as we begin to appreciate that life is finite, and time may indeed be running out.
Coming to terms with the idea that life is not a dress rehearsal can be a difficult and anxious time. We may experience feelings of regret for choices we have made, but also of failure where life has not yet lived up to expectations. Many of us also experience a feeling of loss when we appreciate our youth has ended and we haven’t realized our dreams. Even more common is a feeling of stagnation or boredom with the life we thought we wanted, tempting us to try risky behaviors or act ‘out of character’.
Check out my last Blog on The Meaning of Life, for ways to explore what your life values are, and how you can seek to live a more meaningful life.
Counselling can help you to explore your feelings about your life so far, and understand what you might want to do to achieve your true life goals in the future. If you feel stuck and want to make some changes, get in touch with me to see how I can help.