A friend asked me this question recently, along with the question of whether or not this idea of a midlife crisis is even a “thing” any more. It’s a good question. American culture has changed so much in the last few decades, the idea of a midlife crisis that used to be understood as normal doesn’t seem to show up–at least in the same way–so much.
I do believe that the midlife crisis is a cultural construct. What we saw in the movie American Beauty, for instance, is a pretty standard depiction of what we have come to recognize as a “normal” midlife crisis: A middle-aged man recognizes that he has been sacrificing his own desires in order to serve others: his family, boss, and neighbors. When he realizes this, he starts to recognize that he has (and wants to reclaim) the power to choose to be who he wants to be instead of what everyone else wants him to be. He trades in the family minivan for a sports car. He quits his job and starts flipping burgers. He loses weight and gets in shape. He doesn’t just start cheating on his wife, he starts flirting with teenagers.
Given this scenario, it is not surprising that many people of faith would consider themselves unlikely or unwilling to follow this kind of path. It is also not surprising that psychologists are now saying that this midlife-crisis cultural construct is a myth.
What does resonate in this scenario is that many of us, during or after midlife, start to recognize that there is a divide between how we show up on a daily basis and who we believe ourselves to truly be. (We don’t always know who we really are, only that we recognize we’re showing up inauthentically.)
In my experience, most North Americans reaching midlife (or later) would rather pursue a scenario in which they own their choices more than they’ve been doing. That doesn’t mean reverting to the impulses and desires of a 17 year old. By contrast, the adults I have worked with far prefer to get clear on their personal values and start making sure those are present in their lives.
The list often does include family, stability, and genuine relationship connections.
I have not experienced my clients in midlife seeking material possessions for their own sake. That opportunistic approach to grabbing all you can grab is widely considered among developmental psychologists to be a very early stage in adult development. We may pass through this kind of approach in our early adulthood, but a majority of adults move beyond that.
Later developmental stages are characterized by support and effectiveness, if not leadership, acceptance, and vision. We transcend the petty concerns of materialistic or daily worries.
Many of my clients in midlife also want to see more resonance between their strengths/ interests and their daily work.
Most of us start our adult lives getting the jobs we can get, doing as well as we can, and trying to make more money as we develop experience in our field. We wind up spending the bulk of our career in jobs that don’t take us out of our comfort zone, consequently believing that we are only capable of doing what we have already been doing.
The reality is that many of the skills and strengths we’ve been developing could be applied in a different situation. Sometimes we’ve already developed some expertise through our personal interests. In that event, it might also be possible to make a lucrative job change.
Not everyone could make money with their personal passions, but most of us could spend more time flexing our skills in the service of our passions. We can also try to connect personal strengths and values with the needs of our employer or market.
In addition to re-examining values and vocation, it’s important for a person of faith to recognize any tendencies towards perfectionism.
Take a look at social researcher Dr. Brene Brown’s definition of perfectionism: “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: “If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”
This can be a minefield for people of faith. Some of us have lived our lives believing that to be acceptable in the world, even in our communities of faith, we have to be perfect. Making mistakes, sinning, being human–all of these can lead us into places where we become terrified of shame, judgment, and blame.
Despite the rhetoric about “loving the sinner and hating the sin,” or “We are not perfect, just forgiven,” we act as if what we truly believe is that we have to be perfect in order to be faithful.
When we believe that “perfect behavior” is the goal, we are in danger of a terrific lack of authenticity. And, if that is a belief that we have held onto for decades, midlife becomes an opportunity to stop the insanity. We then have the challenge of learning to accept our imperfections.
It is a great task–to accept our own humanness, to believe in our value despite (and with) those imperfections, and then to accept the humanness of others around us.
So, you may not have a midlife crisis in the colloquial sense. However, there are plenty of reasons for you to sense a disconnect between who you want to be, who you really are, and how you have been showing up on a daily basis. If these three are not brought into alignment in some way, you may feel that your life has been artificial in some ways.
If you haven’t traded perfectionism for integrity by midlife, the time has come to do it. You may not go out and buy a sports car, but you can look at yourself, do an honest assessment, and figure out who you really want to be going forward. That is work worth doing.
If you’d like an easy way to get started thinking through the questions raised in this article, contact me via Amy@CareerLeadershipAlignment.com and say,“Hey, send me the free midlife self-assessment!” Get started today with aligning who you want to be with who you really are on a daily basis.
Amy Kay Watson coaches professionals to discover their destiny, own their power, and live their purpose with humor, courage, and compassion–even in the corporate environment. To learn more, sign up for updates and visitCareerLeadershipAlignment.com.