So, you’ve hit your forties, or are about to, and things are a little different now. What used to motivate you no longer does and you’ve not felt deep satisfaction in quite some time. Perhaps it’s your job, a relationship, or just life in general. The challenges keep piling up and you keep rising to meet them, only to find a whole new set of them on the other side. You are no longer naïve, thinking, “When I get this behind me, I can finally enjoy life.” You are frustrated and restless, and, you’ve got a pretty good dose of angst welling up inside. Are you having a midlife crisis?
7 WARNING SIGNS OF A MIDLIFE CRISIS:
- Persistent Dissatisfaction: You have reached most of your goals thus far, but find yourself asking, “Is this as good as it gets?” So far, the answers are not satisfactory and a sense of futility is settling in.
- Inauthenticity: You are wondering if you have not lost a part of yourself over the years, asking, “Is this really who I am? What happened to that person I used to be? I always thought it would be different; at least by now?” You know that you are not being true to yourself.
- Insignificance: You accomplish a lot of things, but wonder, “Do I really make a difference?” You often find yourself dreaming about something more, but feel life is passing you by, and it doesn’t reach back to make sure you’re along for the ride.
- Shallow Commitments: The thought of enduring the status quo is depressing, but you keep recommitting to it with less and less enthusiasm. You vow to stay the course because you have too much at stake. You are discouraged.
- Relational Tension: You find yourself blaming others around you for the way you feel: your spouse, your kids, your parents, your boss, your peers, or perhaps it is the proverbial, they, or, The Man. You are wondering if life would not be easier and happier without the people who keep “holding you back.”
- Leaking: You are bored to tears. You are doing and saying things that are out of character for you in order to feel a little excitement, even if they are not helpful. Old habits are rearing their ugly heads again, moral & ethical boundaries are becoming blurry. You are no longer able to contain your frustration; you have managed to keep it yourself for a while, but others are starting to notice.
- Recapturing Youth: In order to feel alive, visible, or significant again, you revert to what worked for you in your youth. Perhaps it’s a younger-looking wardrobe, a cool (or cute) new car, physical improvements (real and artificial), or risky behavior.
If you identified with several of the warning signs, beware. You are in the danger zone. Identification with several items on the list indicates that you are likely in a transition, an in-between time in your spiritual formation. They are often challenging and careful decisions must be made to navigate them well.
MAJOR LIFE TRANSITIONS
There are many transitions in life. Positive ones include stepping into a job promotion, marriage, or parenthood. Others are not so positive, like losing your job, an unexpected death, or divorce. But, there are also major life transitions common to all of us, based on age and stage in life. The midlife crisis happens to fall into that latter group.
Terry Walling, founder of LeaderBreakthru & author of, STUCK! Navigating the Transitions of Life & Leadership, draws from research on hundreds of historical and contemporary leaders to define three major life transitions:
- The awakening transition (often occurring somewhere in the 20s-30s).
- The deciding transition (often occurring in the 45+ age range).
- The finishing transition (often occurring somewhere in the late 50s-early 60s).
THE “AWAKENING” TRANSITION
The awakening transition is primarily about learning what we can do. In our twenties to thirties, we begin to understand our calling and catch glimpses of our life purpose. However, many of us end up getting sidetracked here, calling the past idealism while settling for pragmatism going forward as our responsibilities in life only increase; we lose the forest for the trees. This works pretty well for a decade or two, and there are usually plenty of positives along the way to keep us motivated. However, once we have some perspective behind us, we start to feel something stirring below the water line.
THE “DECIDING” TRANSITION
Happening around the mid-forties, the deciding transition is commonly called The Midlife Crisis. We will know that we have hit this transition when we have exhausted the awakening transition and are no longer satisfied by its rewards and don’t really know what to do next. A sense of futility overwhelms us. The tools in our toolbox no longer work. What used to bring feelings of fulfillment now brings feelings of fraud. We find ourselves asking, “Is this as good as it gets?”
What’s lurking below the water line is much bigger than we could of imagined. We start questioning, “Who am I really? What happened to me? Can I make any kind of unique impact in the world around me? Do I matter?” If the awakening transition is about determining what we can do, the deciding transitionis about determining who we can be.
The crisis comes as we see how little of the iceberg is above the water line (what we can do, and where we are) compared to how much of it is below the water line (who we can be, and where we are supposed to go). It is often a startling comparison.
THREE CHOICES IN THE “DECIDING” TRANSITION
We have three choices before us when confronted with the deciding transition. The first two use tactics from the awakening transition.
For example, a forty-something year-old man tries to recapture what worked for him in his youth to make him feel significant; a shiny new convertible, a hipper wardrobe, perhaps starts working out again, maybe sees a doctor about a Cialis prescription even if he doesn’t need it, maybe starts exploring relationships that had previously been “off limits”, or initiating a divorce so he can feel the freedom to conquer the world like he did when he was younger. This is immaturity.
Or, a forty-something year-old woman tries to recapture what worked for her in her youth to make her feel visible and significant; reclaiming her figure, a new sexy and form-fitting wardrobe, maybe reigniting on old flame on Facebook that leads to an affair, or initiating a divorce so she can feel independent for the first time in a long time, perhaps the first time ever. This too is immaturity.
The second choice is to dig-in for the fight, relying on the competence that got us through tough times before; doubling up on the efforts to work harder, sucking it up for another 20-25 years; just too many responsibilities at stake. The person becomes bitter and angry, might try to medicate with food, alcohol, pornography, or risky behavior simply to feel alive again. The person begins blaming everyone else for “holding them down,” and fantasizes about how much easier life would be without those people. He or she “leaks” and leaves a wake of relational tension behind them. This is stubbornness, and it too is immaturity.
The third choice is to mature. It is answering the call to grow out of the awakening transition into the deciding transition. The awakening transition is about doing and its motivations are duty and obligation. The deciding transition is about being and its motivations are living out of vision and passion; that which has been stirring inside of us all along, but not really expressed before. It can be confusing, unsettling, and sometimes chaotic. Yet, maturity is moving through all of that into the authentic life, understanding self, answering, “Of all the good things I could do and be, what are the best things?” and then doing something about it.
OUR FEAR IN THE “DECIDING” TRANSITION
Part of the angst in this transition is the fear that we are going to have to go on to do something totally different, like quitting our jobs, moving to a new town, starting a new business, going back to school to retool for an unrelated career, or selling everything to scale down and live like paupers so we can try making a living at our hobby. That is radical change and not for the faint at heart. Yet, for some radical change might well be what the doctor ordered, especially if his or her present life is so far away from who they really are called to be. Sometimes people recognize they have spent their whole life meeting others’ expectations and never stopped to ask, “What do I want?”
THE REALITY OF WORKING THROUGH THE “DECIDING” TRANSITION
But for most, the reality is that it doesn’t take a radical change in what we do, but only a subtle shift in who we are, finding authenticity. We may well, probably will, keep our same jobs and live in the same town, but we do it from a different place. From the outside, our responsibilities look the same, our doing remains in place, maybe with a few changes, but on the inside, our role has changed as we grow into who we were meant to be. We then work out of a sense of fulfilling our calling, not out of meeting an obligation. At that point, our “work”becomes “service.” Suddenly the pressure is off, the blood starts flowing again, our color comes back, and life is a lot more satisfying.
THE “FINISHING” TRANSITION
There is another major life transition that will come later. It is the finishing transition, peaking in the late sixties to early seventies. There, we begin to hear whispers of finishing well and start thinking in terms of legacy, “What can I leave behind that matters? Whom can I pour myself into?” It is another great growth opportunity, and a beautiful thing when it is done well; most don’t do it well. However, I do not have the room to go into it here.
“STUCK” IN TRANSITIONS
Many people get “stuck” in the in-between times, especially during the deciding transition. We lose a lot of people here. They stop growing and many, out of immaturity, turn their midlife angst into full-blown midlife crises. We all know those that have.
HERE ARE 5 WAYS TO NAVIGATE THE “DECIDING” TRANSITION:
First, take care of yourself. I like how Jordan B. Peterson says it in his book Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos, “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. “ Exercise, eat well, rest, and do some things just for fun. Spend time with you kids, your friends, engage a hobby that you’ve set down. These types of things do wonders to bring us back to the present moment and keep our heads on straight.
Second, journal about what you are thinking, feeling, and sensing. Journaling can be a great way to prime the pump and mine for critical insights and find much needed self-awareness. It will also allow you to take more responsibility for your thoughts, words, and actions, preserving relational integrity. And, it is one of the best ways for us to engage God. Simply writing things down helps them stay front of mind. I often wonder how much God speaks and how little we recognize his guiding voice after we’ve asked because we just forget what we spoke to him about.
Third, it is not good for the (hu)man to be alone. Find someone to talk to that has made it through the deciding transition already. Wisdom from the other side is a great thing. Most of us need more of it. There are plenty of people out there who have made it through, and most people that have are more than willing to do a little mentoring.
Fourth, engage deep community. It is imperative that you have at least one person, probably other than your spouse, that you trust to let them know what’s really going on inside and some of the crazy temptations you are wrestling with in your transition, so that your midlife angst doesn’t become a midlife crisis. Two are better than one, a threefold chord is not easily broken. It is no mere coincidence that this is the time when so many relationships fail, businesses go south, and otherwise perfectly sane people start doing and saying some pretty crazy things. Find someone who will have your back.
Fifth, hire a counselor, coach or spiritual director. They are trained to help you navigate transitions. They provide a confidential ear, help you hold it together while you figure things out, help uncover who you really are, help articulate a renewed vision for your life, and help develop a plan that supports new thinking, behaviors, and circumstances designed to engage your life and set you up for the third transition, finishing well.
I am an Anglican Priest, an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach (ACC), and Certified Spiritual Director (CSD). My mission is simple: I help people discover who God created them to be…and how to get there.
If you have any questions, including how to begin a Christian Life Coaching or Spiritual Direction relationship with me, please feel free to contact me.