Our Midlife Expectancy

by Douglas LaBier

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Washington Post, April 30, 1991

It’s four in the morning and Ken is wide awake again, almost like clockwork. Later that afternoon he tells me that something is wrong with his life, but doesn’t know what. Though only 42 and successful by anyone’s standards, his work feels empty, his marriage feels flat, and he feels trapped in a life that seems cast in concrete. “Kind of trite, isn’t it?” he asks with a sad grin.

Like most men, he keeps these feelings inside. He thinks this is how a mature man handles the inevitable “death spiral” of midlife.

For Jennifer, at 39, it’s both a different yet similar story. She tells me about growing feelings of uselessness, and a chronic sense of incompetence. Yet most people would consider her a winner: she’s a successful free-lance writer with a network of female friends, who enjoys the role of single parent.

Lately, though, she finds herself lingering over her reflection in her full-length mirror, noticing the lines and creases, the breasts that have begun to sag. She tells me that despite all there is to be happy about, she feels like a voice is whispering to her, “You’re becoming old and unattractive. You’ll be discarded soon.” She wonders if she may be the victim of hormonal changes, and asks me to help her cope better with her “unexplained unhappiness.”

What’s going on, here? Are Ken and Jennifer just experiencing today’s version of the familiar “midlife crisis?” Are they dealing with unresolved childhood issues that have come back to haunt them at midlife? Do we even know what a successful resolution of their conflicts would be?

Growing numbers of men and women will be asking questions like these as they face midlife during the 1990s. By the end of this decade even the youngest of the baby boomers will be past 35, when, recent polls show, most people start identifying themselves as middle-aged. Yet we are poorly prepared for dealing with the unique issues and conflicts that only begin to kick in after our late 30s.

One reason is that we don’t know much about them. There has been a lack of actual study of people at midlife. And the research we do have has not filtered out distorting assumptions, such as equating adjustment to cultural norms with maturity and mental health.

A great deal of misinformation and wrong thinking exists about midlife, despite all that has been written about it; and despite the “solutions” offered by everyone from gurus of the self-absorbed “New Age” movement to traditional psychotherapists. Our misunderstanding of midlife conflicts has hurt development of effective psychotherapy to help people deal with them.

But this is changing. Recent studies are shedding new light on mental health at midlife, and are providing a new perspective that helps separate the myths from the realities.

For example, two widely-held myths are that we pretty much cease to change after adolescence, and that midlife is primarily a time of loss and decline. New research tells us that midlife is more a time of expansion, a period of greater self-direction, creativity and passion.

Then how come it doesn’t feel that way? Though we want to experience greater fulfillment during our middle years, most of us expect diminishment, and resign ourselves to feelings that we are headed downhill. Kim, a human resources executive who had just turned 40 expressed this when she said, “Let’s face it, middle age means loss. That’s the reality. I feel it, so does everyone I know. That’s just the way things are, and you can’t do anything about it.”

But Kim is participating in a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we experience decline at midlife it is because of how we have been living during young adulthood.

That is, we will feel loss and decline are predominating by midlife when we have been living during the years prior to it — through our choices, values, decisions and relationships — in ways that undermine our spirit, heighten our fear of change, and weaken our capacity to “author” our own lives. This sets the stage for feelings of entrapment and stagnation by the time we move through our late thirties.

It is then but a short jump to concluding that our main life task is developing good coping skills for dealing with this “reality” of diminishment, of narrowed options for choice and change. This is the view in our culture, and the focus of traditional therapy and analysis, many of whose practitioners share the same resigned attitudes about their own lives. But these are all culturally shaped notions that we acquire while growing up, and then proceed to live out. They are hard to see because we are so immersed in them, like in the old fable about the fish that cannot understand what water is.

The consequences come home to roost at midlife, when many people awaken to the feeling that they have been walking along a road staring down at their feet, but haven’t looked up to see where the road was taking them. When they finally do, they discover themselves in a foreign territory, and feel depressed or terrified by where they have ended up. Lacking a vision of an alternative and seeing only constraints all around, the result is dead-ended resignation, the midlife malaise that predominates in our culture.

But we can break through this self-reinforcing cycle. There is an old Buddhist saying that if you want to see into your future, just look into a mirror: Who we will be in the future is being determined right now, at this moment, by virtue of who we are in practice. Prior to midlife we are easily distracted from grasping this reality by the concerns of young adulthood, which are mainly extensions of adolescent issues.

We do not remain static in our life journey. Our life context constantly changes, and we are always responding to it in some way, with greater or lesser degrees of awareness. We continually mold and shape ourselves through our daily, concrete choices, decisions, and behavior.

If these support greater creativity, disciplined focus, and passionate engagement with life, within a moral context of non-violent mutuality in relationships and respect for all life, then the byproduct is real, rather than illusory, joy and fulfillment as we age. This perspective is found among people who develop greater mental health and maturity at midlife. And it links with new research on the development of “self-authorship” at midlife. Psychotherapy can help men and women create an alternative vision of what they value and how they want to live in their work and relationships. They can put together the personal resources necessary to translate it into reality. But this is a process of transition, containing several steps.

The first is recognizing and affirming where our values, talents, or desires may be at odds with those to which we have adapted in our family, our workplace, or in the larger culture.

We often carry around parental expectations in us for a lifetime, trying to live them out (or rebelling against them) in ways that are either unproductive or which repeat a version of our parents lives, instead of creating our own. These often merge with what we learn to think being a man or woman means. Trying to alter this often meets with great resistance.

For example, Joseph, a 48 year-old lawyer, casually mentioned to one of his partners a thought about cutting back, in exchange for reduced compensation, to develop other areas of his life. His partner immediately responded with a sarcastic retort that questioned Joe’s male prowess.

One may also have to affirm differences from what our culture defines as success. Frank did this, and used this awareness to alter his life. A senior-level corporate executive, he “downsized” his career to a smaller company in a geographic region where he and his family felt more in harmony.

He shifted to a “lesser” position by traditional standards. But he now has more hands-on involvement in areas where he can use his creative talents more fully over the long haul — a different kind of “success.” Doing this required an alternative vision, focus, and discipline. It also required the courage to act upon them.

The perspective of midlife enables us to recognize such differences for the first time. Acting upon them requires knowing what the unique midlife tasks and conflicts are that we must struggle with.

The overall task is to restore the lost sense of possibility, of openness and expansion, that most people recall having believed in during childhood. Rather than a province of naive youth, this is a spirit of engagement with life; a capacity which tends to wither away as we adapt to our adult roles in careers and relationships.

Healthy development through midlife is a byproduct of how we actually live. Restoration of an open vision results from altering how we live in practice, in each day and each moment.

Therapy helps, here, when it focuses on the core midlife need: to restore, expand and integrate powers of choice, moral vision, and disciplined action.

There are several specific psychotherapy issues that follow. One is developing a life practice whose core is meaning and purpose, and which supports self-direction in our goals. Another is learning to let go of the tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, and then feeling disappointed or angry when the world acts indifferent to our desires.

Still another is cultivating equality and mutuality in our intimate relationships. This helps rectify the damage that our learned orientation to domination (or submission) inevitably does to us and our partners. Cultivating greater tolerance for the fear and uncertainty that must accompany pursuing new goals is an additional therapy task.

The traditional material of therapy — consciously facing whatever old fantasies, wishes, and conflicts we may be repeating in our lives, and developing healthier ways of dealing with them — remains important, but at midlife it must be dealt with in the light of new knowledge about the ways in which our gender training creates skewed forms of development for both sexes: Independence does not require domination; emotional connection does not require submission or loss of identity.

The preparation for self-authorship at midlife sounds ironic: we need enough experience with failure and setback in our lives, and need to go down enough blind alleys of self-delusion in order to accrue the critical mass of experience necessary for the perspective, discipline, and focus that support adult maturity. This is part of the reason why one cannot fully grow up before entering midlife.

What also helps is facing the self-betrayals we have accrued from previous transitions, and seeing how they have distorted our lives. Seeing the wrong paths we have taken at previous turning points, and accepting the responsibility for their consequences, clarifies what we have lost or abandoned that we may wish to try to restore.

Psychotherapy for midlife problems that helps people develop lives of expansion — of equality in intimate relations, of purpose, and enhanced creativity — brings all these tasks and issues to bear on specific changes in three areas:

Redefining Success: This is an outgrowth from viewing one’s life as an ongoing project, similar to how a businessperson would plan and carry out an entrepreneurial venture. People who develop healthy, new paths at midlife see themselves in terms of their internal resources that can be redeployed in new ways; rather than equating their self-worth with what they have acquired — and then have to hold on to.

They focus on identifying the resources they already have that can be used for new goals, and what new resources they have to acquire to support their new ventures. The economic downturn has been a catalyst to this, because it pushes men and women to let go of the old success criteria of power, money, or position. These can no longer be counted on, especially with the bottleneck of people at mid-career during this decade.

Redefining success means broadening its definition away from the narrower one of career, and toward a broader definition of a successful, more developed life, overall.

Being Conscious at the Crossroads: This means a heightened sense of urgency about life as it exists within the present moment; a sharper awareness of when we are at a new crossroads, a new turning point. It means knowing that we have just one chance, each time, to deal with it.

Healthy individuals at midlife recognize that suffering results whenever we blind ourselves to these crossroads. This can lead to lives of diminished meaning and passion, built upon lies to oneself, or lacking genuine connection with others. Healthy people at midlife live with awareness of the ticking clock that is life. But rather than responding with escapism and illusions of safety, they embrace the relevance of the present moment to their lives, and act so as not to let life dissipate away through fantasy or regret.

The psychotherapy task, here, involves dealing with the fear that always accompanies living with reality. Being afraid in the face of changes or downturns in life is part of being human. But we typically think the experience of fear is a weakness, certain to lead to paralysis if we do not get rid of it.

What supports health is being open to reality. When we feel frightened at a point of choice or transition, whether imposed on or sought by us, that is our reality at that moment. The therapeutic task is not to “control” the fear better, or fighting it off. Accepting its reality points us to the therapeutic task of dealing with the problem in a way that gets us through it with actions that strengthen us.

Awakening to the relevance of the present moment to our lives helps us see the role of choice. The one thing we can “control” is the kind of person we choose to be in the world.

How we deal with whatever is there. What values we live by, and our overall vision of life that is embodied in our life practice are issues we have choice over.

Living Life As A Practice: A healthy midlife involves changes in our life practice which reduce the gap between our inner values and vision, and who we are in reality, both in career and in relationships. Most of us have a gap between our inner lives – our values and that which we find meaningful – and our outer, public lives, which define how we are living in practice. Effort to reduce this gap requires, of course, that we become conscious of the difference between the two.

For some this means going against the norms of the culture. This may involve a shift of internal perspective, or in outer relationships and commitments – forming new ones or leaving old ones as we clarify and act upon what is important to us at this point in life.

The therapeutic task, in a sense, is to experience our lives as an ongoing novel that we are authoring, and in which we construct the plot as we go along. It means cultivating aspects of ourselves by practicing them.

For example, we can voluntarily put ourselves in new situations that call forth from us unused or new capacities or emotional attitudes. This strengthens them. Viewing life as a practice is very similar to an art form, or musical instrument, or sport: What you practice is strengthened; what you don’t, weakens.

Positive change at midlife requires personal responsibility for forging and then practicing an alternative vision of life. It rests upon the awareness that we are always engaged in choices at each moment. It grows from tolerating our emotional states as having reality of their own. They can exist parallel to our actions, but don’t have to paralyze them.

Seeing reality as it is, rather than as we want it to be is cleansing. It enables us to let go of self-centered needs while pursuing clear goals with passion; to embrace the paradox of trying everything — but expecting nothing.

Psychotherapy for midlife conflicts helps by cultivating, and not mystifying our responsibility for our own efforts. A Zen master hiking up a mountain with a student who kept asking him all sorts of questions about how to do it, told him that he could explain how he, himself, had learned to hike the trail, what he had encountered, dealt with, and so on.

But that none of this could substitute for the fact that the student’s own legs would still have to carry him up the mountain.


Pessimism as “Maturity”

Traditional psychotherapy often fails to help people deal with midlife turmoil because it buys into the cultural assumption that adjustment to decline and loss is equivalent to mental health. For example, Elliott Jaques, who introduced the idea of the midlife crisis into psychoanalysis over 30 years ago, recently described midlife maturity as “contemplative pessimism.” He also equated resignation with acceptance, saying they represent healthy adjustment.

But the two are not the same. Acceptance of reality means letting go of self-centered desires to have the world be as we want it to be. This empowers a person to act with greater clarity of vision and strength of purpose, while reducing our attachment to the outcome. That is very different from resignation, which means giving up, and labeling it “mature” or “well-adjusted.”

Traditional therapy sees no new issues occurring at midlife; just new reenactments of old childhood wishes, fantasies and conflicts. It interprets midlife turmoil as old conflicts that have become reactivated or aggravated by midlife decline; or as regressive longing for the early excitement and freedom of youth, now lost.

In contrast, new studies show that midlife turmoil is largely a crisis of adult values, a positive struggle to complete the growing up process by building an alternative vision of self-authorship.

The Tyranny of Gender

New studies show that people who are most helped by psychotherapy for midlife conflicts have been able to create a foundation of awareness about our socialization into male and female roles. This occurs from our family experiences and our gradual adaptation to values of the culture, particularly through career. A person can prepare for midlife transition by recognizing that our cultural attitudes — a mix of identifying self-worth with career position, of emotional disconnection, of power struggles as a norm or relating — affect our overall mentality.

As we grow into our adult roles, men learn to equate domination and emotional isolation with independence and achievement, and; women learn to equate self-worth with submission to and recognition by a man. This creates a backlash at midlife, as men and women seek to develop beyond these limitations.

At midlife the man often feels that the game is largely over; after becoming “king of the mountain,” there’s nothing left of any meaning; other than warding off attacks, challenges and threats from those coming up. The woman often feels like a fraud, an imposter, whose competency is undermined by a lifetime of training into feeling inferior to men, as well as feeling valued only as long as she is desired by men.

One’s earlier sense of excitement and open-ended possibility typically yield to feelings of diminished vitality — which we label as “mature.” Awareness of this aids the process of change.