The Midlife Crisis and the Role of Responsibility
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“Life really does begin at forty. Up until then, you are just doing research”- Carl Jung
In this blog I’ll detail my own fairly recent experience going through a midlife crisis, explain the possible reasons we tend to have one, outline the importance of voluntarily taking on responsibility as a way through and give some ideas on how you might support yourself in creating a life of fulfilment, purpose and new meaning.
My Recent Experience Approaching Midlife
“Midlife is the time to let go of an overdominant ego and contemplate the deeper significance of human existence” – Carl Jung
“Psychological or spiritual development always requires a greater capacity for anxiety and ambiguity - Carl Jung
Midway through last year I had been really enjoying life. I had a career I loved (as a counsellor), I had recently left an agency that was no longer serving me well, was living in an area I enjoyed, and my business was thriving. I was starting to get more clients than I had capacity for and was considering adopting a waitlist. I was finally working in private practice, a goal I had dreamed of since I started University in 2006. For the first time in my life, at 37, I looked at my life and thought “wow, all that hard work has finally paid off, this is awesome!”.
Around the same time, I had a close friend’s mother die, a person I had grown very fond of over the years and known since childhood. Her sudden death was very sad news, a total shock and very unexpected. It was hard to see someone pass that had been a big part of my formative years, someone so vibrant, happy and always ready for a laugh. She had a real love of life and a great interest in people.
The shock of her death and the grief I felt seemed to focus me on some of the questions I would later be contemplating. If a close friends’ mothers’ death could hit me in such a dramatic way, what will happen if my own parents die? Rationally, of course I was aware that anyone can die at any time, but my friend’s mother’s death really seemed to focus me on the fragility and limitedness of life. People had died who were even closer to me (such as my grandparents) but something about the timing of this death and the unexpected nature of it focused me on the fragility of life in a way I had never experienced before. The sorrow I felt for my friend and the rest of his family was very profound.
This got me thinking about my own mortality and my parents’ mortality. How much longer do I have left with my parents? Am I making the most of my time with them while they are in good health? My friend’s mother was a whole decade younger than my parents, and this happened suddenly. My parents are in their 70’s and having worked in elder care I know how quickly things can change in terms of older people’s health.
I started to feel a sadness, a melancholy feeling and at times depression and anxiety.
In terms of my own mortality, I started thinking: “How much longer do I have left in my life?” “What do I really want to do with my life? Am I living each day with purpose? Am I using my time wisely and productively? What would be the type of life I could look back on proudly and with satisfaction? Given I was approaching midlife and my parents their twilight years, these were questions I may have considered before, but this time they held more emotional weight. There was more of a reality to them that couldn’t have been comprehended in my younger years because I hadn’t reached that juncture in my life yet.
In addition, I had a few unexpected health complications which certainly served to remind me, while I was still young in the big scheme of things, I wasn’t quite as young as I once was. I had a period of a few weeks, maybe a month, of being melancholy and contemplating life. Then I put the experience behind me and remember thinking to myself “I can’t keep on dwelling on this, it’s making me feel awful, I need to get on with my life”. My contemplation was causing a despondency, anxiety and some depression. So, I suppose I just ignored it. This worked for several months. However, I was soon to realise these questions and internal troubles were not about to go away with sheer will alone. That may have worked at times in the past, but this was more significant and troubling than anything I’d experienced before.
In September last year, a time of year I usually really enjoy, things started to change. It first started as a gnawing sense I could be doing more, a sort of restlessness, irritability or grumpiness. The confusing part was I had no idea why I felt that way. Then came boredom where all the things that used to bring me joy didn’t even “scratch the surface”. This later descended into a deep depression, the gravity of which I had never felt before. I started thinking “What is the point of life really?” “Do I just keep working and doing my same old thing until I die? What else is there? These were questions around meaning that had never really crossed my mind before, at least not in such a profound and gut-wrenching way. I’d always been in pursuit of something, but this time I’d finally got to where I wanted to be and found myself asking “Now what?” “Why am I not happy?”. I just couldn’t seem to find happiness no matter what I tried.
It was as if my world was suddenly turned upside down and everything that had worked in times of trouble before didn’t seem to do anything. If you’re old enough to remember colour TVs with a turn dial on the front, it was a bit like that. It was as if someone had turned the dial of my life from colour to black and white. My sense of humour was gone, my enthusiasm for life drained and it was difficult to feel joy in anything, even activities I’d always enjoyed. It felt incredibly confusing. While it likely happened gradually, to me it felt like I was fine one day and then depressed and joyless the next.
To my logical mind this seemed strange as everything was going well in my life, in fact I had recently been away on vacation. I tried everything to get out of this state that worked for me in the past, yet nothing seemed to be effective. Even at my lowest these “tools” had proved effective at earlier points in my life. I’d experienced depression in my teens and 20’s on and off but this depression was different.
Firstly, it felt as if it came out of nowhere, secondly, it didn’t match my external circumstances and thirdly it was much deeper and weighty than anything I had ever experienced before. In the past if I’d been depressed or anxious there would be some aggravating factor in my external circumstances. It felt strange to be so profoundly unhappy while another part of me knew life was good. That was one of the more striking aspects of this experience. The disparity between the circumstances in my life and what I was feeling on the inside. That’s how I knew this was different to any previous experience I had of anxiety and depression.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was in the midst of a midlife crisis. Knowing what I know now, I think what triggered it initially was the unexpected death of my friends Mother. It had started me thinking about some existential questions, I just didn’t stop to consider them in any great detail. I didn’t actually sense that I needed to at the time. After a few weeks I felt a bit better and tried my best to just get on with life, assuming that the only reason I felt bad was that I was thinking about those questions too much. I thought if I just stopped thinking about them, I’d go back to my old self. However, as I said this period of feeling better only lasted a few months.
Then depression hit, anxiety, panic attacks, and a flat mood all seemingly out of nowhere. I soon realised the intensity and seemingly random nature of my feelings weren’t going to go away on their own or be soothed by a few maintenance or calming techniques. I’d be relaxing on my couch just watching TV and there would be surging anxiety in my body with no obvious external trigger. My anxiety was firing off intensely at random with me feeling as if I had no control of it. I’d be doing something that never bothered me in the past, like visiting my parents and out of nowhere I’d have a panic attack.
The upside to the intensity and unpredictable nature of my feelings was it really made me stop and take notice. It became impossible to just push it to one side and carry on working. It started me on a journey of reevaluating my past, redefining, and in some cases reconnecting with who I was. I’d had counselling in the past for certain issues as they came up, then moved on, but this was a real “stock take” of my life and what it all had meant up until now.
I linked up with a wonderful therapist colleague, grieved what I needed to from my childhood and eventually rebuilt myself from what felt like the ground up. It was a mix of reconnecting with familiar old aspects of myself while also creating new meaning about who I was, where I was going and what gave my life meaning from my adult perspective. Essentially, I integrated all parts of myself in a way I never had before. I faced the important questions that arrive on everyone’s doorstep in midlife:
Who am I? Where am I going? What is the meaning of my life? Who am I in the face of death and suffering?
It was in no way an enjoyable experience, but on reflection a necessary one, and at 38, a year later I’m on the other side of it feeling more energetic, more purposeful and more at peace than I ever thought possible. A midlife crisis may feel horrendous at the time, but it can be a chance to redefine yourself on your terms if you work your way through it consciously and with a bit of help. The experience has given me a new lease on life, a renewed excitement and a life that feels full of possibility again. Strangely, on reflection, it actually feels like a gift. I can now appreciate myself and my life in a much richer and more fulfilling way than I ever have before. So, if you’re going through a midlife crisis, keep going. You will get to the other side, and it might give you more unexpected gifts than you thought possible.
The Impacts of the Adapted Self
“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being” – Carl Jung
“The first half of life is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half of life is going inward and letting go of it” – Carl Jung
If you just read about my experience and identified with it you are not alone. In fact, it’s actually very common. I know this because of my client work, my knowledge from psychology and my own experience. Typically, a midlife crisis happens somewhere between 35-40 but this isn’t an exact figure. Some have an identity crisis at 45 or 50 (particularly if your children are starting to leave home) or at 70 as you contemplate retirement. I’ve even seen some talk of a quarter life crisis experienced at 25. It’s essentially any time you have to contemplate your place in the world and start reevaluating who you are. Alternatively, you may not have one at all.
As I’ve said not everyone has a midlife crisis nearing or just after their 40’s but a lot of us do. In my previous blog I talked about our adapted self, our authentic self and how the adapted self in particular is formed in more detail than I will below. You can read more about that here: Our Early Life Shapes Us, but Doesn’t Define Us (timrobinsoncounsellor.com).
You can think of the task of the first of life as being all about building a healthy ego and essentially forming an adapted self. The adapted self allows us to meet the expectations of the outside world. We look at our parents, caregivers and the outside world and say: “Who am I?” and “How do you do it?”. We are vulnerable, impressionable and completely reliant on our parents or caregivers to meet our needs. In addition, our brains don’t fully develop until age 25 with some more recent research suggesting it could be as late as 30 years old. This means during childhood and adolescence in particular, we don’t have the cognitive capacity to evaluate or question the messages we receive (overtly or implied) in any real objective way. We also have a child’s perspective on the world in terms of how we interpret things and children are egocentric by nature.
An example of this might be you having a particular interpretation of events in childhood and then in adulthood you gain new information: that your parents were under great financial stress at the time for example. You then might walk away as an adult with a different interpretation of what happened. The meaning you give to those experiences and what you feel they say about you are very important. They often become part of who you are in the first half of life and become the filter or story through which you see yourself in relation the world.
We also don’t have a reference point to compare our parents to in childhood, so we just accept their parenting for what it is. The child tends to see parents as “all knowing” which means they are inclined to take on their parents’ messages and internalise them (why wouldn’t they be right? they seem as if they know everything else about the world). We all do this to some degree.
Have you ever noticed maybe when you’re a little stressed or distracted that without thinking you do something that just reminds you of your mother, father or caregiver? Or you berate or tell yourself off and you realise your internal voice sounds just like what your mother or father would have said, even down to the phrasing and tone? That’s an example of the messages you’ve received being internalised and often they will influence behaviour too. Often, we aren’t conscious of these messages unless we are asked to focus on our thoughts for a while. This is because we internalised these messages a long time ago when we were impressionable and often these thoughts become automatic. I’m not saying your parents were intentionally nasty or did it on purpose, they do the best they can with what they know, but it can be useful to identify these messages in case you decide you want to change them.
The messages you receive from your parents, family, school system, society and your peers all go into forming your adapted self. You may take on some messages and reject others for a whole range of reasons, but the impression you gained of yourself and the world from birth to young adulthood will have shaped the way you see yourself for better or worse.
To put it succinctly, the process of developing your adapted self starts with fitting in with your parents demands and your family system as a whole (these experiences generally have the most profound and long-lasting impacts because you are at your youngest and most impressionable 0-7 years). The emphasis later shifts to “fitting in” at preschool, then the school system, where you gradually learn to relate to peers and gain an understanding of societal norms. In adolescence there is a separating from parents in order to explore our own identity. Fitting in with peers becomes the primary focus in adolescence. This process I believe carries on into young adulthood as we explore different identities and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves from our own unique perspective.
During the process of forming our adapted self we are forced to deny parts of ourselves that might not fit with what the external world demands of us. You might have been a naturally loud and boisterous child, yet that didn’t fit well with a school system that expected you to sit still and learn. You may have loved art, but your parents wanted you to be a rugby player. You may have been a shy child, but the school system demanded you be more extrovert. You may not have been allowed to express anger in your family or maybe strong emotions were avoided at all costs.
All of these are very basic examples to illustrate a point. Hopefully you get the idea, every time you had to deny a part of yourself and your spontaneous nature in order to meet the external worlds demands, you had to repress a part of yourself. A part of your innate nature. This often comes at a cost but in midlife we get a chance to reassess those old messages and give our authentic selves expression once again. The adaptations we made in order to survive in a vulnerable unpredictable world in childhood can now be readdressed, grieved and a new message that fits with our values and authenticity can be adopted.
Around age 30 a person’s personality becomes more stable, you have more distance from your childhood and adolescent experiences and start to live life on your own terms more, especially since career and financial security is often more established around this age. You also might be in a romantic relationship, married or decide to start a family in your 30’s. You might care a lot less about what others think (unlike adolescence who are often notoriously self-conscious) and you might start reconnecting with your own interests and what’s innately important to you a bit more.
So around 30 for example, in my opinion you are largely living as your adapted self but are gaining more space from your younger experiences and more freedom to truly express yourself on your terms. You are no longer dependent on others in the same way you were in childhood. You probably have aspects of your life that feel authentic and meet your own innate needs, but you are still impacted by who you believe you are based on your earlier experiences and your interactions with the outside world (unless you've worked on it).
If you’ve never taken the time to reassess or reflect on those earlier messages, they may be impacting your life more than you realise. You may even notice the disparity between who you are in your inner world and how you portray yourself in the outer world. You might start not liking that inconsistency and wishing you were “yourself” more of the time.
The midlife crisis I believe starts when the desires of our authentic and adapted selves clash, creating much inner turmoil. Subconsciously, we ask ourselves: Do I continue to live in service of my adapted self? or do I decide to live authentically? That’s when the internal struggle starts. That’s the basis of the midlife crisis in my opinion. It's a battle between two internal maps of the world both wanting expression for different reasons. One wants safety and predictability (the adapted self), the other seeks authenticity.
The Midlife Crisis
“Many people suffer from the fear of finding oneself alone, and so they don’t find themselves at all” - Rollo May
“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without identity” - Erik H. Erikson
The “crisis” or murmur if it’s less intense, I believe comes when we become conscious to the fact that our adapted self no longer serves us anymore. We might even discover it is hurting us or impeding our growth. A conflict emerges between our authentic self, which is suddenly crying out for expression and our adapted self that seeks familiarity, security, safety and nurturance all influenced by the messages you received in childhood and adolescence.
As I’ve said, I think it is this internal conflict that causes all the angst, anxiety, confusion and anger around midlife. On the one hand you want to change, it almost becomes an imperative due to the strength of the feelings experienced, and on the other hand there are old parental, peer or societal messages you’ve internalised that tell you “I can’t” or that it would be dangerous or detrimental to you if you did. You might fear abandonment, others judgements, vulnerability, shame or loneliness if you were to be who you really are, yet you desperately desire freedom of expression. Those old messages came to you at an early age when you were powerless and dependent, where going against those messages had real consequences on you as a young person. Therefore, you reexperience challenging those messages as an adult as incredibly powerful and limiting. To go against those messages often comes with all the emotionally charged feelings you had in childhood. If you’ve never had the chance to readdress them, they may still have a similar emotional impact on you today even though you are now an adult, even though your original circumstances are no longer happening.
There are also other explanations that have been put forward as to why we might experience a midlife crisis. The late author, speaker and counsellor John Bradshaw believed a midlife crisis is spurred on by the sudden awareness into consciousness of our own mortality. This did seem to be an aggravating factor for me as I mentioned earlier. Bradshaw explained that the growing awareness of our own mortality could be brought on by a friend our own age dying or a parent dying. He explained that Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson called this experience “ego chill”. Bradshaw explained that when this “ego chill” happens, we become aware of our finitude or limitedness in a way we have never been able to comprehend at any other time in the life cycle. We realise “one day I’m going to die” and “everyone around me is going to die too”.
This awareness of death can really focus life and all of a sudden, we might start asking ourselves:
What has my life meant up until now? Who am I? What do I want to do with my one and only life? Who am I apart from my roles? My history? My obligations? What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose? I’ve got to where I thought I wanted to be, but I’m still not happy, now what?Is this all there is? Who am I in the face of death and suffering?
Jungian psychoanalyst James Hollis describes the midlife crisis another way. He describes it as your soul wanting expression through you. He explains that when your soul is unhappy and not in alignment with your life’s purpose you feel anxiety, anger, despondency, depression etc. However, when you are living your souls purpose you will feel in alignment, energised and fulfilled. That's why it's important to identify exactly what you want, because when life has deep meaning for you the struggles are easier to get through. They are just part of the bigger picture. Remember Friedrich Nietzsche's quote "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how".
Those questions I wrote above or questions like them form the basis of a midlife crisis. It’s a crisis of identity, it’s a crisis of meaning and it can be incredibly unsettling. The foundation you built your whole life on up until now (the adapted self) and the beliefs that came with it, now start to crumble under the weight of your authentic self, or maybe more accurately, your foundation is fractured from the pressure of your authentic self trying to emerge from underneath.
This internal conflict can be the cause of much anxiety, anger, depression and listlessness. We find ourselves feeling lost, vulnerable and confused. We might have followed the well-trodden “ladder of success” set out by society, our parents or our culture and wonder why we aren’t happy. We might be pleased with what we have and what we have achieved but have realised it didn’t give us the happiness we thought it would. Or maybe we thought we would be at a particular place in our lives by 35-40 and we’re not.
We might start to question what’s real and what’s true in what we’ve been told about life, the messages we have received, and in what we believe about ourselves.
The temptation here is to resist this process even though it’s a natural part of moving through the life cycle. Many people want to hang onto their youth for example as a way to avoid the inevitability of the ageing process. I
n my observation of myself and others it’s the resisting of the process that actually causes all the angst and anxiety. It can be too tempting to hang on to what we know and what’s familiar, then to step into the darkness and figure out who we really are. If you take the time to understand who you are and what you truly want out of life it and can be an awakening of sorts that leaves you with a life much more fulfilling and satisfying than you ever thought possible. It’s not easy, it takes work, but it is possible. That doesn't mean life throws up any less challenges, it just means you will know yourself well, what you want, and what you are capable of and that gives you a greater level of certainty regardless of what comes your way. That is really the best we can hope for in what is often an unpredictable and uncertain world.
The Importance of Taking on Responsibility in the Second Half of Life
“The capacity for growth depends on one’s ability to internalise and to take personal responsibility. If we forever see our life as a problem caused by others, a problem to be “solved,” then no change can occur. – James Hollis
“Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion ones being, but by integration of the contraries” – Carl Jung
If the task of the first half of life was to build a healthy ego and look to others and say “Who am I?” and “How do you do it?”. The second half of life is almost like doing the exact opposite. I think that’s why the process of individuation can feel so confusing and counterintuitive. It’s about turning inward and asking yourself: Who am I? Where am I going? Why am I here? and What’s my purpose? It’s often about reconnecting with who you really are because as I’ve mentioned we repress certain parts of ourselves as we grow up in order to meet the needs of the outside world.
This means taking on a certain amount of responsibility as we can no longer look to others to find the answers or take the blame for our failures. This doesn’t mean the past didn’t impact you greatly but as an adult, as unfair or unreasonable as it may seem, the only person who can instill real change in your life is you. This often feels like an inconvenient truth. We think “but if only that didn’t happen my life would be different” and you’re most likely correct. It’s just we can’t change the past. We can grieve the past and move on from it, but looking backwards will only keep you stuck.
Taking responsibility is living a good life in spite of what happened to you. It’s accepting what happened as part of your history and part of who you are today, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it and it doesn’t take away the impact or hurt that situation caused. However, it does put you back in the “driver’s seat” of your own life again. That is something that is often robbed from us if trauma made us feel powerless or abandoned. We often feel a loss of agency over our own lives and in taking responsibility you get to take that power back.
We don’t get this kind of freedom in childhood and adolescence so when we finally do (often around midlife) it feels a bit strange, scary even for some, especially if you’ve relied heavily on others in the earlier parts of your life. The more space you were given to take on responsibility and live your own life in childhood or adolescence, the easier you will likely find this transition in adulthood. However, if you always looked to others for support and safety and never really learnt to provide this for yourself, the transition can be quite anxiety provoking. You are faced with a very universal human fear: abandonment. What if others don’t approve of me if I’m me? What if I regret being authentic?
On a psychological level, those old childhood fears come out in protest. Essentially the fear is saying: What if I’m abandoned for being my authentic self? What if I can’t survive on my own? This was a very real fear for your childhood self as you relied on others (especially your parents) so heavily for your survival. We are hard wired to keep our parents around to ensure our survival which makes sense given we are so helpless as infants and young children. So, when we go to change this in adulthood those old fears that never got challenged years ago rise to the surface. You’re no longer in childhood but the feelings you get may very much remind you of old childhood situations and feelings. Everything that was repressed had to go somewhere and you would have found your own unique way to adapt, you had no choice.
However, finding your authenticity and creating a sense of meaning is one of the great tasks of the second half of life. This means you have to question all the old messages you received about who you are and what your life has meant up until now. If you don’t do this to paraphrase Oscar Wilde “you could be living someone else’s life”. This isn’t easy to do as there is a sense of comfort in what we know, even if it isn’t working for us anymore. Challenging old messages can feel anxiety provoking, even terrifying and as a result many people choose not to do it. I can totally understand why. It’s getting at the real primal fear of abandonment in many cases, and this causes vulnerability, a feeling which many of us have been spending our adult lives trying to avoid!
That is why I say responsibility is key in the second half of life. You have to be willing to take on sifting through your past, your mistakes, your triumphs, your hurts and those things that make you feel uncomfortable in order to sort out who you are. You need to do that because in order to be a whole person you have to accept all parts of yourself, even the ones you don’t like. Living primarily from our adapted self has already shown what happens when we deny parts of ourselves, it leads to anxiety, depression, anger and irritability. In order to feel calm, you need to end that internal conflict by accepting who you are and taking on the responsibility for your own life and your own healing.
Taking responsibility doesn’t mean you have to have it all worked out in one go. It’s a process. If you’ve had a life of trauma sorting through that will take some time and depending on how severe your experiences were, often with some professional help.
Responsibility is taking the first step. That might be admitting to yourself that you have a problem, whatever that problem is. It might be admitting that you need help to work through that problem. It might be taking the first step of contacting a therapist so you can work through things. It might be staying committed to bettering yourself even when things get hard. It might be having difficult conversations with your partner in order to pave the way for a closer relationship. It might be choosing to not associate with people you realise are bad for you. It might be choosing to eat better or exercise to improve your health.
Responsibility is taking ownership of everything that is within your control, or if you’re finding it hard to get your life under control seeking out the help that is available. Taking ownership of your life is far more empowering than waiting for others to change in order for yourself to feel better. We are all guilty of doing this at times. There are no guarantees you’ll get the response you want from others, but you can be in control of your own life, take action, and choose how to respond should challenges arise.
Responsibility is also about accepting that in adulthood nobody is there to bail you out anymore. In childhood you could possibly fall back on your parents for help, the school system, friends or some other support external to you. To truly move into adulthood with purpose and agency you have to take responsibility for your own choices in life. That means being open to success and failure and regardless of the outcome owning your part in it. It can be tempting to blame outside circumstances: if only I had a better childhood, if only I wasn’t so busy that day, if only that other person wasn’t so rude, if only I had more confidence. The trouble is the “If only’ s” will always happen. How often have you made perfectly thought-out plans only for life to get in the way and things get totally derailed? Life will continue to throw challenges at you and will do so until the day you die. Stop fighting it. All we can do is our best and take ownership of what we can control. The rest is going to happen anyway.
Responsibility is looking inwards and being honest with yourself. After spending your early life building a healthy ego, you now start tearing some of it down and start “remodeling” if you like. You question whether what you know about yourself is true (after all it was just your parents, teachers and peers’ impression of you), whether what you know about the world is true (again you received others interpretations of the world as a young person) finally you might question the nature of truth itself. You might look at your past behaviours and decide you'd like to do things different in the future. You might decide to get honest about your flaws and the areas of life you feel need improvement.
To go through this process as important as it is, is the equivalent of being in a small boat on a stormy sea and me tossing the map, compass and binoculars overboard. You feel lost, anxious, vulnerable and frustrated. You might feel sad, depressed or lonely. You’re in the dark until the remodeling takes place; until you create a new map of the world. That’s when you get your personal authority back. That is when you step into your potential. That's when you really have something to live for, a purpose and drive.
Jungian Psychoanalyst James Hollis explains that one of the times we really figure out we are on our own is when we go to our parents and for the first time in our lives, they don’t have all the answers anymore. They are as clueless as we are. In some unconscious way we all would like somebody to care for us forever but of course this isn’t the case if you are to grow up and truly be who you were meant to be. At midlife it’s more of a psychological growing up, psychologically “leaving home”. For some this realisation might come on quite suddenly when a parent dies.
What’s true? Who has all the answers? We start to realise nobody does and actually everyone is just giving us their interpretation of the world. How do we know they’re right? I think most adults are just doing the best with what they know. Collectively, there is certainly a lot we all don’t know about the world and about life. In the midst of becoming conscious of the fact nobody has all the answers and everything we thought about the world may or may not be true, we only have one place left to look. The one place we have been avoiding looking at in its entirety for years: ourselves.
Men and Responsibility
“When men feel the wound that cannot heal, they either bury themselves in a woman’s arms and ask her for healing, which she cannot provide, or they hide themselves in macho pride and enforced loneliness” – James Hollis
“We are susceptible to bewitchment by shiny objects, political and commercial entreaties, slick theologies and New Age spiritualities, precisely because they speak to something deep within us without requiring us to own our own part in them, or pay the price of consciousness and personal responsibility to truly make them ours – James Hollis
I’m going to switch for a moment to talk about responsibility for men specifically. I work primarily with men and it’s an area of study I’m quite passionate about, I also wrote my Master’s thesis in this area. If you are interested, you can read it here: Traditional masculinity and counselling: a study of traditional masculine norms in New Zealand and their influence on men’s engagement in individual counselling services. (canterbury.ac.nz).
Remember at midlife, what others think of you actually becomes quite meaningless, everything you need for healing and becoming fulfilled comes from within. That’s because you and only you, know exactly what you want from your life, understand your life experiences on the most intimate level and only you have the ability to truly make your life better. How you view yourself will be the lens through which you see the world and it will be whatever you choose. You’re the only one that can take on that task and the responsibility of making changes. Sadly, society doesn’t teach us how to connect with ourselves very well, but in order to know what you want, you have to gain a better understanding of yourself.
I believe our consumerist culture plays on the fact that many of us want something “out there” to fix all our problems. We are encouraged to do anything but look at ourselves and given that looking at ourselves is difficult and often uncomfortable, it’s no wonder we reach out for “quick fixes” to numb the pain or put our problems outside of consciousness. The problem with a midlife crisis is that it throws all of our issues up into consciousness whether we felt like dealing with it or not. It can be a very “sink or swim” moment.
Society has given many of us the message that we should avoid feeling vulnerable, fearful or insecure, especially if you are a man. But consider this for a moment: Has this “strategy” ever stopped you feeling those emotions? Have you benefited from stuffing your emotions down? Or are you angry and stressed a lot of the time? Does suppression support you or alienate you from support? Does it stop you being honest and truthful about how you are feeling? Does it stop you being truthful with others? How does this "strategy" impact your closest relationships? How does it affect you day to day? What's the cost of you not being honest about how you feel? How are you supposed to know what to "fix" if you don't know what you feel?
Taking responsibility means getting clear about what you are feeling and why. Some of those emotions might be insecurity, fear or vulnerability. Actually, I think those particular feelings are some of the most likely to come up. Feelings are part of being human. There are no “good” or “bad” feelings we evolved to have all of them for a reason. Our feelings can actually be one of the most useful pathways to understanding ourselves, yet many men shy away from them or aren’t even sure what they feel!
Denying how we truly feel, even to ourselves can get pretty lonely. I’m yet to meet any man in therapy or outside of it that is living a blissful, peaceful life through suppression, it just doesn’t happen. Those that claim it works, I would take a much closer look at their lives. Are they truly happy? Are they doing as well as they claim to be? or is it just a social mask they are putting on? Often with men it seems to be the latter and many of us are good at "bluffing" even if we are struggling. If some men choose to live that way that's their choice but I believe suppressing your feelings only leads to suffering in the long run.
We have emotions for a reason as I said and the more you allow yourself to feel them, the quicker you work through them and the easier they are to process. The more you try and hold onto them, control them or force them to be different, the harder they are to process and the longer you’ll have to spend dealing with them. In fact, emotions such as anger and anxiety are only likely to get stronger the more you try and suppress them. Think of "bottling" your emotions, sooner or later they come out somewhere often to some poor unsuspecting individual that caught you at the wrong time! An inconvenient truth when many of us have been given the message we are only “allowed” to feel a narrow set of feelings. Also, how are you going to know what you want if you don’t allow yourself to feel? Feelings are often a starting point for informing ourselves of what we need or want. They may not throw up the answer first time, but they often set us on the right path in terms of insight.
The other issue is several of the men I talk to base their worth on something external like their work or status. The trouble is, this is a race you never win. There’s always going to be someone better than you, so you’ll be forever chasing that dream with no relief or end in sight. You’re far better to stick to your own journey as defined by you and be the best you can be, whatever that means to you. You can always better yourself and you get to enjoy the rewards from doing so. It takes a lot of the stress out of life if you are only competing with yourself. That might mean taking responsibility to be the best father you can be, to look after your health, be the best husband you can be or be a contributing member of society. The important thing is it’s measured on what you deem to be important for your life, not an external set of values, not a "borrowed existence". If you set out the values, they can be unique and meaningful to you. You can be living your version of a good life and that's different for everyone.
As tragic as it sounds, I sense a lot of relief when men come to me for therapy and are surprised to find out other men go through the same things as they do. Often, they will say they felt they had nobody they could talk to and that often isn’t due to a lack of caring family or friends. They don’t feel like they can voice their struggles for fear of alienation. What a weight to have to carry on their shoulders. It’s especially sad when I know how many men are struggling in exactly the same ways and yet as men, we often don’t voice it. We don't talk to each other about our struggles. The false belief men often get from this non-disclosure is that every other man is doing ok except for them.
However, I know from experience this isn’t true. I’ve spoken to men daily for the last seven (almost eight at the time of writing) years. They are a range of ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Professions ranging from company executives to road workers, to office workers and the unemployed. Mental health struggles don’t discriminate. We all have mental health challenges at different times in our lives and trying to maintain the image that you don’t struggle will only wear you down eventually.
This is when men most commonly contact me. When there are worn down, when they are at “rock bottom”, when they were forced to acknowledge they needed help as they could no longer do it alone. Imagine if they had reached out to a trusted friend or could voice their struggles more openly. Maybe they wouldn’t have needed to see me at all. Too often I hear that men try to do this and they are met with something along the lines of "get over it". As far as I understand the phrase "get over it" has never helped anyone, it might have annoyed a lot of people, but I doubt it helped in the moment.
Yet in not talking men cause themselves to feel even more isolated and alone. This also contributes to other men feeling isolated and alone because we’re all doing the same thing. We are all pretending like everything is ok even if our world is falling apart. What message does that send to other men? There’s no permission to be human and that’s a heavy burden to carry. Nobody can be perfect 100% of the time. Not a single human on this planet. Men are no exception.
Taking responsibility might be choosing to reach out before you hit rock bottom. If you’re brave enough, it might be voicing your concerns to your male mates assuming they are trusted close friends. This is something I know is fiercely avoided by many men. Yet after a suicide for example, we so often hear “if only they reached out” or “I wish he had just got in touch” and yet we have created a society where reaching out for men in particular is incredibly hard to do for the reasons I explained. Should we really be surprised when they don't reach out? Meanwhile we all suffer individually in silence. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of logic in that.
We are all human; we all experience a range of emotions and in order process them we have to feel them. Contrary to what some believe, feeling your feelings doesn’t mean you will suddenly curl up in a ball on the floor! Once processed you end up with more control over yourself and your emotions, not less. Once you can recognise your emotions and stop going on autopilot you can actually choose to do something about them. Choose to behave differently and there's a lot of power in the ability to choose.
There’s no cheap “workaround” so you can avoid doing any of this. Initially, when some men come to me, I feel like they want to say “can you fix my problem? but I don’t want to feel any feelings or focus on myself in any way”. Counselling is impossible to do from that starting point. Yes, acknowledging and feeling feelings can be uncomfortable and unpleasant at times but at least they get expressed and no longer have control over your life.
As I mentioned, some men have got so good at repressing their emotions that if I ask them how they feel they actually don’t know. It’s not until we start giving words to some of the emotions and allowing expression that they can recognise them and choose to do something about them. How are you supposed to change if you don’t know what you feel? How are you supposed to have control over something you don’t know exists? All of our feelings are important they give us the clues to what we want and need. We can't get the full picture if we edit out some emotions in favor of others.
In addition, repressed emotion eventually comes out somewhere. It may feel as if you’ve dealt with it in that it might disappear and turn in to something else (anger or anxiety are common).
However, unless you’ve fully expressed it, it likely just got pushed elsewhere. Feelings are energy and that energy has to go somewhere. It might come out at work, in romantic relationships, or in your interactions with members of the public. Find a way to understand your emotions and grieve whatever you need to from the past if necessary. Nobody has had a perfect life, nobody had perfect parents or caregivers, we have all experienced trauma to some degree (it’s on a continuum). The only way to heal it, is to feel it as an old counselling saying goes. Feeling and grieving allows you to leave the past in the past. This might mean you need the help of a therapist depending on how extreme your past experiences were, or you may not need one at all. The act of choosing (or not) to see a therapist rather than take your hurts out on others is another way of taking responsibility.
The gift of a midlife crisis as difficult as it is, will be that you come out the other side with a greater understanding of yourself, your wants, your needs and often a greater understanding of others. Despite our varied experience of life, we also have many similarities, so the more you know yourself, often the easier it becomes to understand others as a byproduct. You’ll also have an easier, more free flowing relationship with the world around you. When we are content and fulfilled, we don’t need to put excess demands on others or demand that the external world meet our needs, we are already meeting our needs from within. Interestingly, if you find yourself feeling “needy” it probably has more to do with what you are not doing for yourself than what you think others are not doing for you. The best place to look in those moments is yourself and again, this is part of taking responsibility.
The Move from External Validation to Internal Validation
“The only permission, the only validation and the only opinion that matters in our quest for greatness is our own” – Dr Steve Maraboli
“Freedom on the inside comes when validation from the outside doesn’t matter”- Richie Norton
The other aspect of individuating (becoming who really are) is changing where you seek validation from. If you’re incredibly lucky you might have had a childhood that was supportive, loving and nurturing that allowed for freedom of expression. However, for many of us life wasn’t this way. To meet the demands of our environment we had to deny our unique nature, talents and spontaneous self-expression. This sometimes results in depression, anxiety or fear of abandonment but ultimately a loss of self.
One of the “gifts” of a midlife crisis is you get to stop and look seriously at where your sources of validation come from. As I’ve said earlier, due to the way we grow up, we rely on validation from our parents, peers, society, the school system and other significant figures in our lives. This isn’t necessarily bad, (although it can have extremely negative effects if our caregivers were neglectful) its more just a function of how we grow and learn about the world. We don’t really have much choice in the matter. I believe this leads to us having a strong bias towards external validation. The trouble is by midlife that validation needs to come internally, that shift needs to be made if we are to live authentically and in line with who we are at our core.
In midlife we truly get the distance from our past and the demands of others (parents, teachers, peers, society etc.) to decide who we want to be and how we want to live. As John Bradshaw put it "I can be who I want to be! but you don't know that until this moment" (in reference to middle age.)
Once you reach midlife and do the personal work required if needed, you’ll realise that external validation (while potentially a useful learning tool in the first half of life), isn’t quite so helpful in the second half of life. If you’re hoping to be happy or at least content, external validation will never get you there in any real sense. This is the same for holding onto impressions others had of you in the first half of life. You were young, you were trying to meet external demands and didn’t have true freedom to be yourself.
Many of us had some really tough circumstances to deal with in childhood that were completely out of our control and certainly not of our own doing. While there will be genuine parts of yourself contained in that older version of yourself by the time you reach adulthood you can be quite a different person. Is it useful to base who you are now on beliefs that came from a time that is so outdated? Are you hanging on to old beliefs about yourself simply because you've never revisited or questioned them?
Rightly or wrongly the school system is geared towards external validation in that everything is graded as pass or fail. Life doesn’t mirror this in quite the same way. As Counsellor and author John Bradshaw humorously stated: “If we both leave for LA and you get there two hours earlier than I do, I don’t fail LA!” Yet our school system often leaves us with the impression if you don't measure up to others in various subjects you've somehow failed. We can't all be good at everything.
Life is far more of a journey of learning and growing than it is pass or fail by the time you get to middle age. You've learnt that some things work out, some things don't but you often learn a lot about yourself in the process. We are all dealt a different set of cards in life, some better than others. Regardless of what hand you were dealt you have to find a way to make it work for you.
Who can say if we have lived a good life or not other than ourselves? We are all so different and our likes and dislikes so nuanced, the only person that can gauge that is you. The only reference point should be yourself. Are you learning and growing? Are you moving in a direction you want to move? Are you feeling fulfilled in life? Does your life have meaning or a greater purpose than just “going through the motions?”. That’s all the gauge of success you need. Comparing yourself to others only leads to disappointment and just because something made somebody else happy doesn’t necessarily mean it will make you happy. Only you know what happiness and contentment looks like for you and the details of that might be entirely different to somebody else.
As I mentioned earlier, everyone else just has an impression of you. In interpreting who you are they are often limited by their own fears, beliefs and shortcomings. They will never understand you like you understand yourself, they can't. Therefore, the compass for your life has to shift from external to internal. It has to be defined by you. Obviously, you will still care about people and need to take their needs into consideration but “outsourcing” your worth for someone else to define is not a fulfilling or sustaining strategy. However, many of us continue to define our worth externally simply because that's what we learnt to do in the first half of life. It was all about “impressing” the external world if you like. Often, we haven’t stopped ourselves and asked:
Who are my choices serving really? Is it serving me and the direction I want my life to go in my life? Or is it serving some old complex from the past? Am I living my life based on somebody else’s beliefs? (Parents or caregivers are a common one). Am I living a "borrowed existence"?
As a child you instinctively knew how to tune into your own needs, there was no real separation from thinking and feeling. Now that you’ve had 35 or so years of not using that skill, you’ll have to get used to tuning into it again. An internal sense of validation is far more stable than relying on the external world. Others are far too wrapped up in their own issues to give you anything sustainable and frankly it’s not their job. Validating yourself and caring for yourself is part of taking responsibility for your life and responsibility for your wellbeing.
Embracing the Complexity of Life
“You move from the illusion of certainty to the certainty of illusion. You really leave home” – John Bradshaw
“Learning to live with ambiguity is learning to live with how life really is, full of strange complexities and strange surprises” – James Hollis
“Absolute reality has predominantly the character of irregularity” – Carl Jung
I think at middle age we get to stand back and look at life a bit more objectively. In childhood we are very busy learning and growing up and in adolescence and early adulthood we have much verve for living because everything is new and exciting. Everything from learning to drive a car, to being allowed to buy alcohol, to having a career, to buying a house.
In middle age the “gloss” comes off a lot of these things as we have done many of them before, plenty of times. In some ways life is not quite as exciting as it once was but we do get the gift of stability and that comes with its own perks. Less anxiety, more relaxation, less trying to "be something" or prove ourselves to others.
We also come to realise as I mentioned earlier that nobody really has all the answers, we are all just doing the best we can with our uncertain and fragile existence. We realise that some of the common messages we receive such “always be humble”, “good things come to those who wait” ,“sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” “if a job is worth doing it’s worth doing well” are not to be taken quite as literally as we once thought or in some cases the messages might be totally irrelevant in the real world. Do you have to be humble all the time? Has waiting actually worked for you or have you had to be proactive at times? Have names hurt you? If a job is only worth doing if you do it well does that mean you can never make mistakes? you can't simply learn and enjoy the process? it’s not worth trying something new because you won’t do it perfectly? This doesn't leave much room for just living life, learning and growing. Yet that's what I believe life is about.
Several men have been given the message one way or another to “always be strong” but what happens when you don’t feel strong? What happens when you feel you need help? What does that then say about you? Sadly, many men would rather die (figuratively speaking) than admit any sign of weakness. This makes no sense. They’re just emotions, we all feel them, and we all evolved to feel them for a reason. You don’t have to be perfect all the time. You don't have to be strong all the time. That’s a huge, exhausting burden to carry around your whole life. Why do we set the bar so unrealistically high and so completely unattainable? No wonder I hear from a lot of men who feel shame, loneliness and despair. It’s an impossible ideal to live up to! I haven’t met any man that feels strong 24/7 or any human being that feels strong 24/7 for that matter. It’s asking someone to be more than human. None of us are more than human, we simply do the best we can.
At midlife we learn there is more uncertainty in the world than certainty. Growing up it looks as if adults have the world figured out to some degree. We head into adulthood with a very idealistic view of how our life will be and what we will be doing. This is completely natural for children and adolescence as they are egocentric by nature and often look to the future with an idealised view.
However, by 35 or 40 we discover that not everything works out how we plan it. We’ve had some successful relationships, some failed ones, we’ve had some jobs we hated, some jobs we loved, we’ve often been betrayed or let down by this time of life. Those we thought we trusted may not have been what they appeared to be. What we thought was right for us might not have worked out the way we expected. The people we thought were good for us may have turned out to be detrimental. The egotistical and idealistic view of the child/adolescent gets shattered by the realities of the real world. There's no "fairytale ending", the harshness of the world comes plainly into view. The realities of life come more plainly into view. This can be quite unsettling for some people. They lived their early life expecting things to be one way and then at times realise it's quite the opposite in reality.
There are also a lot of contradictions and paradoxes in life. Some things just make no sense if the world was fair and just, like a child dying of cancer for example. Or we might see people in our lives who claim to be nice on the one hand but act quite the opposite in reality. We see the wonderful parts of humanity where we come together and support each other and yet we also see world war, famine, and murder. We get to experience the joy of childbirth but also the pain of somebody close to us dying. We realise the world is not the fairytale we might have thought it was in childhood. In addition, we are all here doing the best we can knowing one day we are all going to die. As counsellor and author John Bradshaw put it "it's like Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill knowing it will come down the other side". That's one hell of a crappy fairytale! and yet here we are, it's the life we have been given.
That’s why I say meaning has to become center stage in midlife. And the meaning you give life has to be derived from you. In a strange world that much of the time seems to have no rhyme or reason, the only thing you have to cling onto is the meaning you give to your life. The meaning you give to your struggles. One person may think: "look at all the tragedy in my life what did I do to deserve this?" Another might think: "look at what I’ve overcome!" Depending on which one of those you choose your life will look very different.
Other than that, all you have are hope and faith. You’re staring into the abyss and somehow you have to make sense of it. We all do in our own unique ways. Life just is, it doesn’t care about individual outcomes, and it has a funny way of challenging us time and time again especially in areas we feel less accomplished. Have you had the experience of running into the same type of personality over and over even though you find that type of person difficult? I don't know why that happens all I know is life has a funny way of constantly testing us especially in the areas we feel most vulnerable. The areas we are most in need of growth. So that then becomes an opportunity, an opportunity to meet that challenge that has been put before us.
A rich and fulfilling life seems to be far more about learning and overcoming than reaching some sort of “bliss” point and staying there. That’s when we stagnate. That’s when we stop growing. When I see clients feeling inspired it’s nearly always because they have a new challenge to conquer.
Additionally, think of life’s strange paradoxes such as pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, success and failure, certainty and uncertainty, perfection and imperfection, acceptance and rejection. Life is full of them and yet you can’t have one without the other. You can’t really feel pleasure until you understand the feeling of pain. You can’t appreciate certainty until you’ve had uncertainty. You can’t reveal in your success unless you understand the devastation of failure. We live in a culture that tries to pretend we need to be happy all the time but how realistic is that? If all we were was happy, certain, joyous, life would lose all meaning. It’s through understanding the other side of the paradox that gives life meaning. I don’t know why life is that way, I just know that the certainty and idealistic view of the world we had as children and adolescence is something of a myth. Once you reach midlife and have had many different life experiences you can see just how much of a myth that was.
Another important point to consider is life is always moving. Even if you try your best to resist aging and growing up/ being responsible, it’s still going to happen. Rather than try to push against the natural order of things, it’s far less effort to just take the journey as it comes and a whole lot less exhausting and anxiety provoking. Think of life as a river. You can either paddle against the current and wear yourself out or you can turn around head down stream and see where the journey takes you. I feel that is a much better more workable analogy for life. That’s one you actually have a chance at. Yet our culture teaches if you are just big enough, smart enough, happy enough, have the right material possessions, the “right” job or partner, you’ll feel fulfilled, happy and “good enough”.
After 35 or 40 years you realise none of that is true, nobody else or no “thing” can make you feel “good enough”, it’s you that has to do that. External things might bring momentary happiness but nothing long lasting and sustaining in and it certainly won't give your life meaning or improve your self-worth in the long term. The best option you have is to work at being who you truly want to be. Work at being the best version of yourself, accepting yourself fully, embracing the peculiar uncertainties of life and taking on the journey with meaning, purpose, compassion, patience and acceptance. Acceptance is not resignation. Do your best and aim high but just accept if things don’t turn out as planned that’s how life rolls, it’s not an indictment on your worth as a person. Accept your mistakes, own them and take responsibility for yourself as you navigate life’s choppy waters.
If there is one certainty in life, it’s that it will always throw challenges and unexpected hurdles our way and it will continue to test us. The challenge is how do you take that on with confidence, integrity, responsibility, passion and empowerment? One way of looking at it might be viewing life as a series of challenges. That it’s not whether you pass or fail per se (although we all like to succeed) it’s about meeting challenges head on, learning and growing and gaining more knowledge about yourself and the world in the process.
It’s about being knocked down and getting back up, being challenged and still moving forward. It’s about overcoming and being more than who you were yesterday. That’s a strong and committed person. There’s nothing in there about perfection, self-criticism or being “weak”, it’s all just a part of the rich tapestry of your life. It’s going to include grief, loss, failures and sadness, as much as it will include happiness, success and gratitude. The important thing is to view these in a balanced way. You can’t engineer your life to avoid pain and suffering. The more you try and deny reality, the more pain you will cause yourself. You have to approach life seeing it just as it is and approaching it with honesty and integrity.
Remember though while there might be grief, loss and failure, you also get to feel wholeness, happiness, joy, love and the satisfaction in overcoming life’s challenges. You get to surprise yourself with accomplishing more than you thought you were capable of, that’s often the gift that comes from hard times in hindsight. In our toughest moments we often learn the most about ourselves.
Embrace life’s strange complexities as they aren’t going away, you might as well sit back and enjoy the ride! If you give it some thought, would life really be all that satisfying if it wasn’t difficult every so often? My guess is your proudest and most gratifying achievements have been when you’ve beat the odds and overcome something you never thought possible. That’s the story of the hero. That’s grit, that’s perseverance. If life it didn’t include the challenges, the losses, the heartbreak, how could we ever see ourselves at our very best? We would have nothing to measure it against.
A Journey of Rediscovery
“We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate it oppresses” – Carl Jung
“The only thing you don’t have to work at is being yourself”- John Bradshaw
“Most people are living someone else’s life”- Oscar Wilde
You might be thinking that’s great but how do I be my authentic self? Or where do I even begin? I think it takes a few things. It takes a lot of courage, patience and persistence because you’re making a commitment to discover who you really are. This might mean you reconnect with some quite painful memories of your early interactions with the external world. You might feel anger, resentment, anxiety, sadness and confusion.
However, the only way is through if you really want to connect back to yourself again. There’s no quick way to do it and there’s no side-stepping the hard work. If you really are serious about living more authentically and having a more enjoyable, meaningful life you really have to commit. You have to stop the blame, the distraction, the self-medication and take responsibility for your own life and your own wellbeing. You’re the only person who can do it but many of us spend our lives waiting for others to do the “heavy lifting”. You’re the only person who is invested in your life enough to do it thoroughly. And as I said earlier, you’re the only one who has had a front row seat in your life. You’re the only one that knows yourself intimately and knows your innermost fears, wants and needs. You’re the only one that can create real meaning.
The meaning you give to your life is completely unique to you. That’s why it’s important to stop looking at the outside world and expecting others to meet your needs. That’s why there’s no real point blaming others or waiting for others to change before you decide to move forward. That doesn’t mean you weren’t hurt or even severely scared by others. The healing though is up to you. You’re the only one that knows exactly how you need to grieve your past in order to let it go. You’re the only one that knows the right words to say that will make yourself whole again. How could anyone else ever do that for you? You’re the expert in your own life, so own it, take responsibility for it and embrace your own healing. This may well be one of the hardest tasks of your life. The task of looking at yourself with honesty, humility and courage.
When you look at your life with the aim of accepting yourself it also has to include every aspect of what makes you uniquely you, the good and the bad. If you try and skip the bad, you’ll know. Deep down your conscience knows and then it just becomes a case of stuffing down what you don’t want to look at again and that leads to prolonged pain and suffering. To truly accept yourself you have to accept yourself in your entirety. If you don't is it really accepting yourself?
You may have become so used to living from your adapted self that you don’t even remember who you are anymore. This is quite common. I’ve had many men when asked the question “well, who do you want to be?” that can’t answer that question the first time.
They’ve become so estranged from who they really are that they can’t find themselves anymore. It might take 2 or 3 more sessions before they start piecing things together as they find themselves having to dig deep and remember who they were before life got in the way. For some It can be hard for them to remember the hobbies they used to enjoy and the reasons they found those activities so enjoyable because for one reason or another they abandoned them and often they abandoned themselves in the process . Yet once they start reconnecting with themselves and become clear about what they want in life, change starts to happen. That's where a midlife crisis trips a lot of men up, they don't know what they want anymore.
It’s quite tragic really. That some of us get hurt so badly on somewhere in childhood that we completely abandon ourselves and become a persona, an act, a "social self". We start to heavily rely on the messages of the adapted self in fear of doing anything else. No wonder we feel unfulfilled, depressed and sad. There’s nothing more damaging than not being able to express yourself fully and truthfully. We all want to be exactly who we are without fear, apology or anxiety. It’s just that old messages get in the way or trauma distorts our view of ourselves in negative ways. Once those old messages are challenged and tested against reality, we often get to see how untrue they are, and this leaves room to see ourselves in more accepting and compassionateness ways. We can then choose to see ourselves more positively and rather than internalising messages that are limiting we can instead choose to see our potential, our strengths and our capabilities.
One place to start could be looking at your childhood and trying to reconnect with who you were back then before life got in the way. When were you at your most confident? Your most carefree? The closest to being your authentic self? Even if it’s just a bit of a blind guess, start the process. It might be a bit of trial and error but it’s worth making a start. You might also feel more authentic around certain people or situations in your adult life. What's different about you in those situations that allows you to be more authentic? What can you learn from those experiences that you might be able to implement into your life more broadly?
IMPORTANT: if your feel uncomfortable about doing this or your past has included sexual, physical violence or severe forms of trauma I strongly recommend working with a therapist or psychologist. The gravity of the feelings associated with these experiences are far too great to tackle alone. It’s important to get professional support around you in working through issues such as these to ensure your safety.
On the other hand, if you feel comfortable reconnecting with your childhood self at the age you felt most confident, carefree and the most authentic then definitely see what reconnecting with this part of you can teach you. You could try some of these questions:
What parts of yourself did you have to deny in order to be your adapted self? What strengths did you lose that you’d like to have back? What areas of life did you parents or caregivers struggle with? Are these areas you struggle with too? What age were you when you when you were at your most authentic? What hobbies and activities did you enjoy most? How would you describe your personality back then? What qualities are you pleased to have remembered? If somehow you were able to be you at your most authentic how would life be different? How would you see life differently? How would you view yourself differently?
The poem below is one that counsellor and author John Bradshaw happens to reference a lot. As I’ve reconnected with myself on a deeper level, I’ve grown to really like it too. It’s called To A Child by Christopher Morley. In my opinion it captures a child’s perspective of the world. A child like pure energy. I find it has a way of really capturing who we all were once. A vibrant, magical and curious child. Innocent and eager to learn. Full of love, excitement and trust. Full of hope and wonder. Every single person on this planet started that way. I believe it’s our true nature and within it our authentic self.
Obviously, as an adult we have different responsibilities, knowledge and sensibilities but the essence of who we were is often found way back in the past before life took a piece of us, before we had to adapt to the external world's demands. Before the disappointments, the betrayals, the hurt, the pain, the anxiety and the fear. Before we started to overthink and care too much what others thought of us. While reading it consider:
Who were you before life got you down? Who were you before life got in the way? If you were to recapture that sense of wonder, trust, excitement and curiosity, how might you approach life differently?
To A Child – Christopher Morley
The greatest poem ever known Is one all poets have outgrown: The poetry, innate, untold, Of being only four years old. Still young enough to be a part Of Nature's great impulsive heart, Born comrade of bird, beast, and tree And unselfconscious as the bee— And yet with lovely reason skilled Each day new paradise to build; Elate explorer of each sense, Without dismay, without pretense! In your unstained transparent eyes There is no conscience, no surprise: Life's queer conundrums you accept, Your strange divinity still kept. Being, that now absorbs you, all Harmonious, unit, integral, Will shred into perplexing bits,— Oh, contradictions of the wits! And Life, that sets all things in rhyme, may make you poet, too, in time— But there were days, O tender elf, When you were Poetry itself!
I particularly like the line “But there were days O tender elf, when you were poetry itself”. It's really stuck with me. It’s a nice reminder that all of you reading this were that young vibrant child once. Full of hope, potential, curiosity and wonder about the world. Unique in your own way and unapologetically yourself. Everything is exciting at that point in life and our imagination and creativity is at its purest. I think when we reconnect with ourselves at our most pure; our most authentic, we also access parts of ourselves that are more certain, less fearful, more curious, more compassionate, more creative and more imaginative.
It’s through creativity and a sense of openness that we start to solve our own problems and have an easier relationship with the world. It’s very hard to be authentic when you feel tight, anxious, rigid and fearful. The same goes for working through a problem. If we are anxious and fearful it's very difficult to see a way through as our perspective narrows. If you suspect you are living predominantly from your adapted self you might want to ask yourself these questions:
Are you still trying to impress your parents on some level? Are you living your life or a life built on parents /friends/ societies expectations? Are you afraid to stand on your own two feet and be accountable for your thoughts, your beliefs and your actions? These might be signs that you are living more as your adapted self instead of being authentic.
Humility, Forgiveness and Compassion
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self” - Ernest Hemingway
“Where wisdom reigns there is no conflict between thinking and feeling”- Carl Jung
“The day a child realizes adults are imperfect, he becomes an adolescent; the day he forgives them he becomes an adult; the day he forgives himself he becomes wise.” – Alden Nowlan
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes” – Carl Jung
In order to move forward in the second half of life you’re going to have to be prepared to look at yourself openly and honestly. This takes courage and often the willingness to be vulnerable. You adapted in childhood for a reason and hid parts of yourself that were probably more innately you, but it wasn’t safe for you to express them at the time. The thing is your adapted self kept you safe (you got to this stage in your life, didn’t you?) so when you decide you want to let it go there is likely to be a lot of resistance, even if you want the change. Your adapted self has served you well (at least to some degree) for 40 or so years so when you go to take it away there can be old childhood fears that come up. Will people like me if I’m me? (old abandonment fears), Will it be safe to be me? Will I be accepted?
You might fear the unknown or even fear your own success. In my experience clients can fear success as much as they fear failure as both of them make you stand out. Sometimes clients will feel both at the same time. They don’t want to stay as they are because they feel a failure or it's making them, unhappy, but they are too afraid to reach for success because of the responsibility they would need to take on if they succeeded. Sometimes the path to getting to where you want to go requires doing things you don’t want to do so it can be tempting to just stay the same even though you are suffering.
You can either choose to feel that way or embrace the possibilities of what might come if you truly step into who you want to be. It will cause anxiety and some fear as change and the unknown does this for people, but the freedom and affirmation you feel in being yourself is well worth pushing through for. It just takes a first step. The more you learn you can handle, the more confidence you gain and the more momentum you build.
If you’re a man that subscribes to traditional masculine norms this will feel even more challenging. Traditional masculine norms say you have to be strong, stoic, self-sufficient, a provider, a protector. That model of masculinity leaves no room for yourself if you are suffering. The “motto” is keep carrying on and sacrificing yourself no matter what (even at the expense of your own health) and don’t you dare show any sign of “weakness”. Tell everyone everything is fine even when you feel life is teetering on a knife edge. What an awful way to live your life. Why suffer needlessly? What are you trying to prove? Who are you trying to prove yourself to?
At midlife the challenge is: can I be vulnerable enough to admit my mistakes, own my failures, embrace the parts of myself I don’t like and express my wants and needs? Can I relax enough that it’s ok to feel genuine joy, happiness, appreciation and love? Traditional masculine norms sound like more of a straightjacket. A lot of men would rather die than show weakness and there’s something wrong with that. It requires you to be more than human. There’s nothing wrong with being traditionally masculine if that’s naturally who you are, just ask yourself if you’re having to give up anything truly important to you in order to act that way. Are there aspects of who you are that you want to express but are too afraid to break masculine norms? That will tell you whether you are being authentic or not. Why shouldn’t you be allowed to be spontaneous?
In order to let go of the past and let go of your adapted self you will have to show yourself compassion, understanding, forgiveness, acceptance and love. All the things you felt you didn’t receive in childhood that you felt you needed. That’s the only chance you have at being a whole person. A whole person does not cut off parts of themselves in fear and shame, they be themselves without apology. After 40 years or so of fitting in with the external world's demands isn’t it time you got to be yourself? Our adapted self often meets superficial needs. The trouble is you never win that battle. There will always be someone better than you, it’s impossible to ever reach the top so to speak. However, if your aim is to be the best person you can possibly be, the best version of yourself, that’s a fight you can win and it’s one you can excel at. It just requires you to be courageous enough to look at yourself and say who am I really? And how would I like to present that to the world?
Hope for those currently facing a Midlife Crisis
“Let your hopes, not your hurts, shape your future” – Robert H. Schuller
“Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible” – Carl Jung
“He who has the why to live can bear almost any how” – Friedrich Nietzsche
I cannot tell you how to find your authentic self, I can only give some guidelines. The real “soul searching” will have to come from you. I’ve been through it and so have many of my clients and I can promise your life gets better. While your map of the world feels turned upside down and anxiety and uncertainty reign it will feel tough.
However, if you take the time to reevaluate who you are and where you want to go, you’ll slowly build a new sturdier more dependable map. Once the new map is in place you will feel more grounded and centered again as you become surer of who you are and where you are headed. It’s deciding to take on the complexity of life and all its challenges courageously and voluntarily. It’s having the courage to look at yourself honestly and openly. I believe it is some of the most important work you can do for yourself. How you view yourself matters. It colors how you see the world and it colors how you see your yourself, your worth and your resilience.
The midlife crisis is an opportunity for growth and really stepping into yourself, it doesn’t have to be the end of something, it can be the start of something new. You don’t know what rewards that may bring until you step into it. Once you have a clear and meaningful direction for your life and you really know who you are and what you stand for the hard times become much easier as your reason for living becomes far greater than any obstacle. In a world that will constantly throw challenges your way, overcoming obstacles becomes part of the natural order of things. How can you become more than you thought possible if you are not challenged? The more you see yourself challenged and overcoming those challenges, the more you will believe in yourself and the more you will trust that despite life’s challenges you are capable of handling it. At the moment the midlife crisis is that challenge.
My invitation to you is to stop fighting your midlife crisis and repressing the emotions that come with it. Get help with it if needed as you don’t have to suffer in silence. If you’re willing to let go you might learn things about yourself you never expected, you might be reminded of your strengths, your essence, your brilliance.
As I said earlier, if you think of life as a river (always moving, sometimes choppy, sometimes not). That’s a good analogy for life. The more you keep paddling against the current (life itself as well as your innate needs for expression) the more you will get tired, frustrate yourself and feel defeated. If you start instead paddling downstream, crossing choppy waters and appreciating the calmer water when it comes along, you’ll get better at handling the ups and downs of life. No amount of paddling against the current with teach you that. You can’t control what the water does and you can’t control what challenges come into your life and you’ll feel more fulfilled as you express yourself fully.
It’s all about how you choose to deal with life’s difficulties and how you choose to view yourself as a person and in regard to those challenges. The clearer you understand yourself, your needs and what you want from life, the more confident and surer of yourself you will become. So, start paddling! Even if it feels slow and laborious at the start (which is very common if your old map of the world is no longer serving you), it’s better to make a start than not make a move at all. I hope I’ve at least inspired you and given you some ideas to think about. If you would like to work with me, feel free to get in touch.
Tim Robinson - Counsellor
MCouns (Distinction). Msc Psych. PGDipHealSc (Health Behaviour Change)
Registered Provisional Member with NZAC
For more helpful blog posts or to book an appointment visit: www.timrobinsoncounsellor.com