Working through a mid-life crisis (MLC) is tricky. It is a very personal and isolating experience. Like transitions at other times of our life, navigating midlife is confusing and challenging. We are almost hard-wired with the thinking that if we are suffering, there must be a problem. And if there is a problem, it should be quickly figured out and resolved.
While there is some wisdom out there on how to understand and work with a MLC as an event to learn from and an opportunity for beneficial change, there is not much written or said about what to watch for or avoid. Here are some tips from my learnings, personal experiences and from working with others.
Don't do any of these regarding your MLC:
This is the most common method of handling a MLC. We have an amazing capacity to ignore important warning signs. At home, we all can step over a pair of shoes in the hallway for days. My teenage son can drive the family car with the check engine light on and never ask about it. I can learn to live with a throbbing tooth until one day it cracks, creating a major catastrophe.
Ignoring the background hum of unease in our lives is unfortunately easy to do as well. Doing so, like the toothache, will cause it to increase and one day create havoc after being dismissed. It will move from the background to the foreground. In my opinion that is what creates the "crisis" in midlife crisis.
Don't ignore the signals that something is off in your life. You know not to drive with the oil light on. Stop what you are doing and take time to listen to what your insides have to tell you. Your thoughts, emotions and even physical sensations and issues will all line up to give you some important information. Listen carefully.
Jumping into "re-action":
You may be the kind of person that immediately jumps into action. The first thought that pops into your mind whenever a challenge appears is "OK, what do I need to do?" Or, you may be the person who does something else first: check what is out there in books and other sources of wisdom, call a friend, seek professional advice, or just take time to think about next steps - all before taking action.
Whether you are in the first group or the second, there is a sense something different must be done to stop the discomfort. You are right; there is a course of wise action to take. But not acting just to stop the discomfort of the MLC. A lot of people who are hurting in their MLC believe if they just make changes to their life, the pain will go away. They quit their jobs, leave their marriages, change what they wear and drive, all in an attempt to see if what they do makes the pain go away. It might, or might not. And it will only go away for a while. This is why if you react to the discomfort without learning what it's really about, it will only come back.
You may think that it will go away by taking action, leaving your marriage or job for instance. But it's like eating lots of garlic and trying to hide it with mouthwash. The odor oozes out of your pores. Avoiding it just makes it come back smellier and messier.
It's tempting to think that once you are aware of this disquiet, you just need to make changes. Don't! Making fast changes just to move away from the uneasiness does not keep it away very long. It will creep into your new job, your new relationship or your new home like a virus. Repeat this couple of times, getting the same or worse results each time, and you will find your life a mess. At best you will be like a hamster trapped on that spinning wheel for the rest of your life. So watch out for jumping into doing something just to relieve the pain.
This is another common reaction that only serves to exacerbate the suffering over time. Not understanding the cause of our pain, we do things to just make it go away or at least numb it. It's a particular form of ignoring the messages of the MLC and doing something to just stop the hurt.
The "drugs of choice"? Most people aren't surprised with the main ones: abuse of alcohol or drugs (both prescription and illegal). But there are some others. Sex: extramarital affairs and obsessions that become harmful. TV and the Internet: more and more research is showing the dangers of isolation and other issues from trading in your real world life for hundreds of hours of unreality.
Other normal activities taken to an extreme to numb the pain include excessive shopping and buying new toys (combine with TV's QVC and you get a double dose). Problems from excessive gambling, also available online and on TV, are growing. Even the weekend warrior who becomes obsessed in an extreme sport or becomes a fanatic in a new physical endeavor is something to watch out for.
It's the obsession and extreme behavior that I am pointing to and that is the issue here. Any one of these pursuits or activities is normal and beneficial. But taken to the extreme and for the purpose of moving us away from our direct experience of our life, is the concern. Just like the jumping into action, "re-acting" to the pain signals, this is another form of ignoring what you might really need.
Making fun of it:
This is just another form of not directly working with your MLC. Humor is an interesting thing. There is always a seed of truth in most jokes. That is what makes it ironic or clever. So this is different than ignoring all of the signals you are getting in your MLC, but it's another way of avoiding dealing with them.
We all know the jokes and parodies of the male midlife crisis. We enjoy the TV sitcoms that regularly milk it for all they can.
Don't dismiss the signals that something important is happening - either for yourself or others. We all enjoy humor about the struggles in life, but, when taken to an extreme, it trivializes what is really happening. So watch out if every time your life sends you a call for help, you brush it off with a joke or quip. You are only fooling yourself.
Taking it on alone:
It is really hard to navigate a MLC alone or without support. When we are in the middle of our stuff - all the things that we do automatically to cope with life's difficulties, it's very challenging to see how to take action wisely. We are habitual in how we react to things. A MLC is a call to react in a new way. It is a signal to change. And change is very hard to do alone.
Another piece of advice from my website suggests taking a look at people who are happy and energized with how they are living their lives. If you listen to their story, they will tell you that they know the disquiet you are struggling with very well. They might tell you they did the same things you are doing now and how it didn't work. They will then tell you they didn't ignore their disquiet, but "listened" to it to learn what it had to tell them. Then they found their "true north" and charted a new course. And they will tell you they did not do it alone. They couldn't have. It takes help.
This is a journey. And like any great journey, you need help and support. There are lots of resources out there: sites like my own one, life coaches, therapists, self development programs, and spiritual trainings and classes. Don't wander into your wilderness without a map and a compass.
My name is Dave Schoof, an expert on making changes in life that stick. I work with professional men in the middle of their lives who are unsatisfied with how it's going. I have helped a lot of men work with this restlessness in their lives and I can help you:
Why focus on men? I am interested in the unique stressors on men on today's world. After working with hundreds of men and women professionals, I have learned that there is a struggle that is distinctly male. So much of men's identity is tied up with success and work, that when neither is meaningful nor reflects their true selves, there is a real disillusionment. Learning from the work with many men and from the experiences from my own disquiet, I have focused on my services to help men navigate these challenges.
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