What on earth is a midlife crisis? What is midlife come to that?
Well, when it comes to timings, in theory at least, it has to be happening later these days. In previous generations people were lucky to live to 60, then the 30s would have been midlife. Now as we are all moving towards living to the magic 100 the 50s and 60s have become the new 30. In psychotherapy we are now suggesting that the people who are 60 and over are about 20 years younger than the previous generation. That is, people at 60 are doing what their parents were still doing at 40. I guess the timing of a midlife crisis is a moveable feast.
Midlife crisis is a term first coined by Elliott Jaques he suggested that it occurred somewhere between the forties to early sixties. He looked at it as being points, or periods of change and transition in life. However, there seems to be little evidence that the midlife crisis is in any way a universal phenomenon and seems more to do with the industrialised and urbanised western culture rather than the agricultural societies of Africa and China.
I have a theory that is born out of developmental psychology in the school of analytical psychotherapy. It is this…
… at around the age 3 to 4 most of us have set our gender role and identity. By this age we understand the concepts of male, female, mother, father, brother, sister and so on and we understand where we fit in these patterns. We have also developed internal working models, or inner concepts, that enable us to make sense of our percepts, or what we perceive to be out there. A concept is like a box full on information that explains things. So in the mother box will be all the information that we have gathered about what a mother is. So, when we see those things ‘out there’ we know what they are. We have concept boxes for things, people, roles, talents etc.
I guess it is fairly obvious that if the things that end up in the concept boxes where mixed up we may have some odd ideas. Let’s say that when we were gathering information about mothers, to fill our mother concept box, our mother was always beating us with a stick, then we are unlikely to be able to perceive a woman out there as a mother, unless she is carrying a stick and beating people with it. It also follows that when we grow and become a mother we might feel that beating people with sticks is a part of the deal that we have to do to be a real mother. Anyway, I digress.
After our basic concepts have been established at around the age of 4 we enter what is termed the ‘latent’ period. This is where our focus moves from being self-centred to attempting to build and understand relationships. This phase is also termed ‘socialisation’. It is not until we reach adolescence that the early concepts gathered at 4 years are re-examined, re-evaluated and, if required, re-built.
It is in adolescence that we challenge all the basis assumptions that we took on early in life. This also means challenging the beliefs of our society, religion, culture, family and so on. Often this includes experimentation with various versions of our-self until we find one that feels comfortable, that we can own into adult life. Growing your hair down to your knees, or dying it green, or hanging your face with cutlery, or getting tattooed, travelling, experiencing and experimenting are all a part of the adolescent phase. It seems to me that those people who don’t go through the rebellion of adolescence, those that do not question the current order and challenge their early concepts are vulnerable to a mid life crisis.
When people have a mid life crisis, go ‘off the rails’ or ‘lose the plot’ they are normally doing things that they would normally have done in adolescence. Their behaviour often appears out of place belonging in adolescence not in middle age. We can all be vulnerable to midlife crisis because we all, or at least most of us, failed to do all that we could have done in the adolescent phase.
Avoiding a midlife crisis
Most people that I see who are in midlife crisis are those who feel stuck where they are and are seeking change and new experience. The mother when the last child leaves home. The man in his mid fifties who still has a mortgage to pay and children at Uni who need supporting. Often it is those who have had enough, they have run out of steam, motivation and energy. Over all they need some fun, excitement and new experience.
To avoid a crisis make sure that you are enjoying life and experiencing new things and having some fun. When we learn to express our-self and enjoy who we are and where we are, then the need to do something drastically different tends not to happen.
Be happy and have fun