Midlife Crisis? …or, Midlife Awakening?

Song: “Courage to Grow” from album of the same title by Rebelution (2007); Video with lyrics: Grace Berdan (Youtube, 2012)… (I added a video this time because I like the band, and I also thought the song really fit this post)

As a psychologist and someone in “midlife”, I hear people talk about midlife crises all of the time. Though there is debate in professional circles about midlife crises, it’s generally agreed upon that most people will start to think more about how much time they have left and take stock of what they have done in their lives. They may ask, “What have I accomplished?”,  “What do I have yet to do?”, “Is that still possible?”, or, “Am I happy with choices I have made or the direction I have taken?”

It’s possible this could become a crisis, as a person feels he (or she) may not have much time left, there may be regret about the life lived so far, and a feeling that change is needed…hence,  stereotypical “midlife crisis-ey” behavior like having affairs, leaving one’s spouse and children, getting into great shape, and/or buying expensive sportscars. Most people understand a midlife crisis as when a person experiences upset about getting older and longs to be young again, so starts acting like someone much younger, forsaking their current life.

It seems that most Americans believe midlife crises to be a real thing, and one that men fall prey too much more than women. And the general belief about a midlife crisis is that it ends badly, at least as far as others (partners, children, other family members, or friends) are concerned.

Whether you believe in midlife crises or not, it’s a fact that we all have a finite amount of time to be alive- and none of us knows just how much that will be. So naturally, in our 30’s or 40’s, as we advance in careers; move; buy homes; raise kids; see kids go off on their own; and so on, we start to think more about how much time could be left, and take stock of whether or not we have been living the life we wanted or imagined. If we’re happy or content, a crisis would be unlikely; whereas, if we feel unfulfilled, bored, or regretful, then the midlife crisis may very well come to be.

From what I have seen, through work and in my personal life, most people get very busy with life’s responsibilities (or for some, avoiding them), and they can get stuck, going through life on autopilot- working all of the time, forgetting about their passions or what really makes them feel alive, or distracting or numbing themselves. It’s only when you become aware of it, look back, or look at the current situation than you might question how you got here, and do you like where “here” is.

So crisis or not, we all look back, take stock, look ahead, and think of future possibilities- either with a primarily good or bad feeling. As I mentioned earlier, I’m someone in the midlife category, as I turned 40 this year. I don’t think this had a lot of significance for me, as I don’t feel that “old” or that I am “over the hill” or even at the top yet. I could stand to be in better shape, but I am often busy and active, and I’m satisfied with the majority of my life choices. And aging is inevitable, so you might as well embrace it. I choose to believe that how you feel is much more important than the number of birthdays that have passed or how many years you have left- which, again, none of us know.

As I was thinking on this subject and what I wanted to write about it, I searched a number of topics, asking, “What is the opposite of a midlife crisis?” Most of what I found wasn’t what I had in mind, so it seemed this may not be a well-thought-about or well-researched phenomenon. It looked as though people conceptualized “opposite” in a number of different ways. I suppose one opposite is a person feeling increasingly happy come midlife, embracing it wholeheartedly and experiencing satisfaction and contentment. Another I found was a person experiencing a crisis earlier in life (for example, in their 20’s), but resolving it and feeling more together come midlife.

I think we can agree that a happy, contented person in midlife is not having a crisis. But what other option is there for an unhappy, middle-aged person, should he NOT go into a crisis? What would that look like? Or, what about a generally happy person who wants to do even better?

I have seen a number of middle-aged people come into my office who were either unhappy about something and wanting to make some changes- as well as people who were mostly happy, yet concerned about one thing or another in their lives- also wanting to work on changing. In either case, a person has some choices to make. Either do something about their life situation, or else don’t, and make a crisis become more likely. Here are some examples of people who might take a look at themselves in midlife and decide to do some things differently:

  • A heavy drinker or partier deciding to settle down, possibly deciding to live a sober life.
  • A person who didn’t exercise or live a healthy lifestyle starting to work out regularly, becoming a runner, or a healthy eater.
  • A “spendy” person deciding to tighten up his finances, rather than wasting money or living check to check.
  • A person who shunned relationships or who was promiscuous deciding to pursue a serious or committed relationship.
  • A person who lacked spirituality or religion beginning to explore a different kind of life, researching different faiths or views, or joining a church or spiritual community.
  • An individual who bounced from job to job or who did not have a good work history returning to school or finding a career.
  • Someone who didn’t feel good about how he treated others- possibly lying, cheating, stealing, or taking advantage of other people- deciding to become more honest or law-abiding.
  • A parent who hasn’t been very available for their kids choosing to make a better effort.
  • A person who has struggled with self-esteem or self-confidence deciding to do some work in these areas to feel better, on their own or with professional help.

And there can be many more. But midlife does not equal crisis, whether a person is happy with his or her life or not. And if you’re not happy, you can decide to change on any given day. It may sound corny to some, but you always have the choice to make today better than yesterday, or to shake things up and make a life change.

For a person having a midlife crisis, he or she may or may not be aware of it. Chances are, they’ve decided to do what they think is right for them, so it’s unlikely their mind will change until they reach that conclusion on their own. As a concerned friend or family member, you can certainly reach out to that person- just know that he may not be receptive. We’re usually protective of our decisions and tend to get defensive when another person judges us or suggests we’re somehow wrong.

But for the person who may not like the past or the current state of things- who decides he or she is going to work on changing it, there are many ways you can go about it. Here are a few:

  • Self-reflect. Think about what you do and don’t feel good about, how it came to be, and how you’re current state compares to where you would like to be. Journaling might come in handy here.
  • Talk to a trusted friend or family member. Tell them about your thoughts, and ask for some honest feedback. You can also ask a person you look up to or respect for advice.
  • Talk to someone who has been there. If you know someone who has been where you have and may have made some changes, talk to them about how they did it. Talk to a friend, a peer, a mentor, your partner, or another family member. A support group might be good here as well, since they generally consist of like-minded people who have dealt with some of the same things. Examples include: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA); Narcotics Anonymous (NA); Gamblers Anonymous (GA); Al-Anon; Ala-Teen; Smart Recovery; Weight Watchers; Celebrate Recovery; and many more.
  • Self-help. These days there are books and blogs on just about anything, so chances are you can find something that fits your situation or mindset. This is also often a great place to start if you think professional help could be useful, but you’re either hesitant or on the fence.
  • Professional help. A therapist with experience working with people in your situation can be an invaluable resource. Not only has this person likely worked with several other people in your situation, but he or she should be objective and free of any of the biases that friends or family may hold. Professionals are also bound by confidentiality, having an ethical and legal obligation to keep your information private. If you’re not sure who to contact or aren’t sure about this, someone like your primary care physician, a friend, or other professional might be able to point you in the right direction. There are a number of directories online as well, which are a great place to start.
  • A crisis hotline, 911, or your nearest emergency room. If your situation is dire and you don’t know what to do, or you are having thoughts or harming yourself or anyone else, please reach out for help immediately. As mentioned, there are many other ways to seek help, but in the event of potential life-threatening emergency, get help right away.

Not sure how you feel about your current situation or past? Or might this change from time to time? Take time to think about it. Reflect, keep a journal. You may not need to make any drastic changes, but remember that most things you can work on changing if you want to. Whatever you do, be true to yourself. Live a life that corresponds to your values and beliefs, and try your best to enjoy it. But if that is difficult, don’t be afraid to reach out. If you think professional help could be useful, you might find a referral here.

Take care!







Published by Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a practicing psychologist and director of Matthews Counseling & Coaching, a private practice in Chester Springs, PA. I work with clients 18 and older, and my specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's. Our group works with individuals from tween through older adult, helping them with a variety of life issues. Check out the practice website for information on other clinicians and their services: http://matthewscounselingcoaching.com .

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