Is this all there is? This is a question everyone asks themselves eventually.
Is the life I have right now the one I want?
Is there more to life?
Growing up, we have a bit of a romanticized notion of what “being an adult” will be, and what life will look like.
We will be free. We won’t have to live under the rules of our parents. We won’t have to go to school every day. We will be adults – we will be our own person and be able to live our lives how we want!!!
And then we get there.
Once out “on our own” we need a place to live, and we need to eat. So we get a job. Maybe we find one we like, and maybe we just find one that will pay us. But that’s alright, because it pays enough of the bills to let us get by. If we want more “stuff”, we need a better job.
But the job is just a job. Sure we may make some friends at work, but our job is just there to help us finance our life; and our life is the important part.
In our personal life we have friends and family. Often we have a spouse or a partner, and maybe we have kids. THOSE are a greater source of happiness than our job.
But our friends and family have their own lives too. And as much as we may love our spouse and kids, they can be sources of stress and conflict almost as much as they are sources of joy.
We live our lives, and although there may be a lot of joy, life becomes routine. We need to work to pay the bills, and hopefully put away a bit of money to be able to go on a vacation once in a while. Or get a nicer car, or a nicer house.
So we find ourselves in this cycle, going through the motions of life day after day, month after month, and year after year.
Eventually though, *something* triggers you to take a look at your life.
And you come to the realization that being an adult is not what you expected. Careers aren’t what we expected. Marriage is not what you expected. And being a parent is not what you expected.
And you find yourself asking, is this it?
Is this all there is?
I think this stage of taking a hard look at your life is what is often referred to as a midlife crisis.
As a kid, I thought a midlife crisis was a bit of a joke. When I heard the term I had visions of an older guy who would divorce his wife, get a sports car and a girlfriend at least 10 years younger (probably a yoga instructor).
It was the sort of thing you saw in movies and on TV, but I didn’t think it really happened.
Of course as a kid I also thought that marriages lasted forever, people would always love their partners and affairs only happened in soap operas. Ha!!!
Now that I’m at midlife myself I read peoples stories on blogs, and I look around at friends and acquaintances and I see that midlife crisis is actually quite real.
It’s just not quite what I thought, and the idea of the sports car and the yoga instructor isn’t often that accurate.
More commonly, instead of a “crisis” people have a period of midlife reflection and transformation.
Sure, some people respond badly, act selfishly and do some really stupid things (and those are the ones we most frequently hear about). But that doesn’t have to be what it’s about.
And in fact, this period in life can also be very healthy.
What Causes Midlife Crisis?
If midlife crisis is a period of reflection and transformation, what causes it?
I think mid-life crisis is really about recognition of our own mortality. It happens anywhere from some ones late 30’s to early 50’s (around “mid”-life). And if you hear enough stories you start to see that there is usually some sort of trigger.
The person going through it often has lost someone close to them, or perhaps they or someone close to them has been impacted by a serious illness.
Sometimes the trigger is just age, and with it the realization that statistically their time on this earth is moving into its second half; and we are closer to our death than our birth.
Why do People Handle it Differently?
To me, the biggest question is why do people handle it so differently? At this time of reflection, some people don’t seem affected at all. Others take stock of their lives and decide to take up a new hobby. And then we have those who dump their partner, buy a sports car and start dating the yoga instructor.
It’s clear that not all approaches are equal, and some have much more significant long term repercussions than others.
Each person is doing what seems right to them at the time, but in the cases that are “newsworthy” to friends and loved ones it often seems like they are watching a car crash. They are watching a loved one engage in what appear to be self-destructive actions and decisions.
So what causes this difference in behavior?
I think it’s primarily due to two things:
- The size of the gap between where you hoped/wanted to be and where you feel you are
- The degree of control you feel you have had over how you got to your current situation
The first one seems obvious. You sit back and look at your life, and it’s not what you expected. Maybe a big part of that is due to a romanticized notion of what life “should” look like, but if your life doesn’t look like the one you wanted and you believe that your time is running out, it makes sense to want to make changes.
I think the second reason is actually MUCH more important though.
I write about relationships, but the main underlying theme in my writing is choice and accountability. I feel that choice, and the belief that you have the ability to make choices is one of the biggest keys to happiness.
When I hear stories about midlife crisis, the people who make the biggest changes are usually people who have been living the life they thought they “had” to, or the life they felt was expected of them. Commonly they didn’t assert themselves, and instead just went with the flow.
And now they don’t want to do that anymore. Instead, they decide to live the life they “want” to live – usually acting very impulsively and with little thought about consequences. It’s at once a rebellion and an assertion of individuality; a way of taking control of their own life – with either very little thought given to the damage being done in the process or a belief that they have “sacrificed” for long enough and they don’t want to anymore.
I truly believe this element of choice and control is much more important than the actual gap between where someone is and where they want to be.
If the gap is large but it’s a result of your own choices? Well, there’s no one to blame but yourself. You may not have what you want but you’ve done the best with what you had.
If you feel that you have been living the live that was expected of you though?
People can have what from all outward appearances are great lives. Great families, jobs, partners that truly care about them and support them. It doesn’t matter how “great” a persons life is though if they don’t feel they “choose it”.
No matter how much good there is, if they feel they have been living the life that others expected of them then it lays the groundwork for considerable resentment.
What is the Crisis?
When this midlife time of reflection becomes a crisis, there are a few common areas. These include the following:
Loss of Identity
This is probably the biggest one. In life we play a number of different roles. And in the process of growing and changing it’s easy to find that in all the roles we have “lost ourselves”.
We have become the parent, the partner, the co-worker, the child. We are all these different things to different people. But who are we?
I think we are the sum of all these things. Each of them makes up a part of us that is part of who we truly are.
When there is a sense of lost identity, maybe people never actually knew who they really were. This realization can be painful, but also powerful.
And midlife becomes a time of finding yourself again, and perhaps finally accepting yourself for who you are, instead of looking at who you are not.
Loss of Freedom
At midlife people often talk about “wanting to be free”. There is often sadness at lost youth, and a yearning for the freedom that came with it.
But the sad truth is, as much as we may try there is no going back. We were “free” because we were kids. We had adults to take care of us and look after us.
Once you are an adult? Freedom doesn’t really exist – at least not in the way it did when we were kids. You pretty much have to go to work. You have to have shelter, you have to eat. If you have kids, you have to take care of them. And if you want a relationship, you have to put effort in.
All of these things definitely DO put restrictions on you.
You absolutely CAN choose to walk away from those restrictions, and some do. Some hit a point that they find the stress too high and they just walk away one or all of these parts of their lives – their partner, their job, and even their children.
However when people do that they are looking for a freedom that they will never truly find. And that type of freedom not only comes at great cost, but is also usually not quite what someone expects.
Another issue that can cause midlife to be a time of crisis is the sense of being “stuck”. Life has become mundane and routine. You feel like you are just going through the motions. Alive, but not truly living.
The advertising world tells us that “normal” is bad. It tells us that we are special, we aren’t like all the “other people”. We deserve more.
Then we look over and see the kids. And the mortgage. And the bills. And the pile of laundry.
And over time a sense of sadness and hopelessness builds, which in time can turn to depression.
I think this is probably the leading cause of affairs and divorce. People are looking for some sort of change to shake them out of the rut they are in, and finding comfort in the arms of another is an easy (and temporary) way out. People who have affairs often say that they wanted “to feel alive again”, and that they had lost that feeling.
Affairs are a quick fix though, and they don’t address the underlying issues. I talk about this as it applies to relationships in Losing the Spark. But even individually we all need goals. We need things to strive towards (both individually and as a couple) in order to allow us to get through day to day life.
Truthfully, we all could probably do with a bit more excitement our lives. But it doesn’t just happen, we need to build it in.
A Time for Change
Midlife is a time for reflection. Even if you have been living the life you felt you had to, or the one you felt was expected of you – sometimes when you take a good look at it you realize hey, it’s not so bad.
Maybe there are a few changes you can make, a few goals to pursue, a bit of improvement in communication with people you care about.
And sometimes improving a few little things can make a world of difference. We don’t necessarily have to wipe the board clean and start our life over again.
Last year I hit 40. Mid-life.
There was a bit of turmoil in my life at the time, but I can truly say I never entertained thoughts of the sports car and the yoga instructor.
I did reflect on my life, and I do on a fairly regular basis. But every time I do, I come to the same conclusions.
Yes, life could have been different. There are any number of choices I made which, had I chosen differently would have resulted in a different “me” today.
But I have no regrets. All of my choices were mine, and all of them helped shape me into the person I am today.
And honestly? I like me. Hell, I love me.
And I love my life.
My life is not perfect and it never will be. And things won’t always work out the way I want. But I have a lot of things to be thankful for.
And I ALWAYS have choice.
Others matter to me, and I care about their opinions. They may even influence some of my choices in the way I live my life. But they were still my choices.
I can always choose to improve the things I don’t like, accept them as they are, or change them.
And so can you.